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Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

At the climbing gym

[Emma has been trying to conquer one route for most of the time they’ve been there, over and over again.]

“She’s very stubborn,” said an older climber to Mara during one period while Mara was resting between climbs. “Too bad she didn’t start five years ago, that kind of determination could have taken her to the top.”

“Yeah,” Mara said softly. “Too bad.” Five years ago, Emma had been busy being beaten by a father who wanted to toughen her up, and by a brother who simply enjoyed beating up people smaller than him.

Just more evidence that the land of opportunity held opportunity for only some people, not all. Still, she heard enough from the network of “uncles” to know that Russia itself was more brutal than ever, making America, as brutal as it was, look almost like paradise by comparison. There was no place there for a Natalie, or for most of these young happy people testing their bodies and their will against these climbing walls. She supposed that a land of opportunity for some was better than land of opportunity for none.

If only there were other possible worlds that were better than this one….

But how could Mara find them? She had read the books. The majority of the world for most of human history had been horrific for women. Due to the need to outbreed disease and war women of necessity had become little more than brood mares throughout most of history, impregnated as soon as it was likely a baby could be brought to term then repeatedly impregnated until dying in childbirth or of simple exhaustion in hopes that at least two children and hopefully three or four of the dozen or so born managed to make it to adulthood. If it had not been that way, the human race would not have survived. It was not a life that led to opportunity for women. It was a life of brute survival.

The chances that any world through the doorways was at a level of development where women could be more than just brood mares was slim. Of the thousands of years that civilization had existed, and the hundreds of thousands of years since modern man had evolved, conditions for women had become acceptable only the past fifty or sixty years and only in certain civilized parts of the world. It was an almost impossibly slim amount of time.

Emma’s anger as she attempted to climb an unclimbable route, over and over again, was not a new anger. It was an anger held close by women for many, many years. Thousands of years, maybe tens of thousands. The anger of a life curtailed by a universe that cared nothing for fairness and nothing for dreams. It was an anger that, Mara feared, would consume Emma in the end. And there was all too little that Mara herself could do about it.

[note — at 63,000 words now]

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There are doorways

A quarter mile away, Emma pulled her bicycle over to the side of the road and stepped off of it and let it fall to the sidewalk as she sat down on the curb and buried her head in her lap. Mara pulled up beside her and carefully put down the sidestand and leaned her bike on it, then sat down beside her. Emma was panting for breath, coming down off an adrenalin high, crashing hard. Mara just put a hand on her shoulder, waiting.

Eventually Emma straightened up and turned towards Mara and said “God, I was so fucking terrified. I just centered myself and said to myself I was going to be badass and… that came out. I didn’t even know what I was going to say or do and… it just happened.”

“That was the most impressive thing I’ve seen in my entire life,” Mara said sincerely. “I couldn’t even tell you were terrified until at the end when you said as much and your hands started shaking. I’ve never seen anybody do anything like that in my entire life.”

“Well, you’re just a kid,” Emma said, smiling. And Mara smiled back. Yes. Yes she was. And she’d mentioned that to Emma a lot, when Emma was looking to her for answers that she didn’t have or that Emma needed to find for herself.

“You are an impressive person,” Mara said seriously. “That took courage.”

Emma smiled. “I guess I am impressive.” Then her smile fled. “Too bad it’s all for evil. At the end of the year he’s going to put me to work as a distributor. I’ll be selling evil shit to school kids, probably. That’s what Lakes do in this town. That’s part of the deal. He quits beating the crap out of me and I join the family business.”

Mara closed her eyes. “I wish….”

“Yeah, me too. But what’s that saying you’re so fond of? It is what it is.”

“Reality sucks,” Mara said.

“Yeah.”

They sat quietly for a few minutes while Emma slowly calmed to normal, both thinking about that. But there was something else bothering Mara.

“When you said you would come back from the dead again… your brother didn’t think you were joking.”

Emma turned her head to Mara and touched her forehead, pushing her hair back slightly. “See this scar?”

“Okay,” Mara said. It looked like it’d laid out a nice flap of Emma’s scalp, there would have been a lot of blood, but it shouldn’t have killed her.

“When they killed my mother for not wanting to be part of the family business anymore… they killed me too. Todd clocked me with a steel crowbar and knocked me woozy but mostly just opened up my scalp. Then they threw my mother’s body and my tied-up self down a mine, and laughed as I begged them to come back. I quit begging after a while.” She turned over her wrists, and Mara realized there was a series of small scars there. In the area where a rope would have tied her wrists together. “I managed to scuff through my ropes on the rocks. I was lying in a pool of my own blood by then, feeling a bit woozy from blood loss, but then I could bind up my wounds and stop the bleeding. So they drove home, and when they walked through the door, I was sitting on the sofa watching television, wearing the same clothes I’d been wearing except clean not covered with blood and dirt, with just these scars to show that anything had even happened.”

Mara puzzled over the story. It made no sense. How had Emma gotten from the bottom of a mine to beat her father back home?

There are questions where, if you don’t know the answer, the world makes sense as an orderly place where the laws of cause and effect hold sway, where the unexpected always has easy answers that make sense. But if you ask the question, and receive an answer, then it is as if all of reality rests upon quicksand, anything could happen, anything makes sense.

Mara asked the question. “So how did you pull that one off?”

Emma looked at Mara as if wondering if Mara would think she was crazy if she answered the question. Then Mara saw Emma make the decision that she didn’t care what Mara thought. And then Emma spoke and Mara’s world shifted off its axis and nothing was the same again.

“You see,” Emma said, “There are doorways…”

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Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them. — Margaret Atwood

I was contemplating how a female protagonist in a mystery/thriller of necessity has to work differently than a male protagonist. Too often if a man is writing a female protagonist, she’s either written drop dead Hollywood gorgeous as an idealized sex toy, not as a real person, most of whom aren’t drop dead gorgeous and most of whom aren’t tall and thin. Or if he believes himself to be a particularly enlightened writer, she’s depicted basically as a man with boobs. But given the difference in size in and of itself that last can’t work. She has to operate with her wits and tongue and friends in low places, and if necessary fleet feet, not her fists, because trying to get into a one-on-one physical matchup with someone who outweighs you by sixty pounds and a shit-ton of testosterone-fueled muscle is a fool’s errand. She isn’t going to engage in the sort of monkey dance shenanigans that boys and men get up to (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ve never observed the beginning stages of a schoolyard fight between boys, which are more about monkey hooting and howling than about actual fighting), and if she needs to kill someone she’ll just kill him, preferably with a distance weapon, she isn’t going to try to hammer him to death with her bare hands or do all sorts of posturing and talking about it. There isn’t much room for error in the life of the bad-ass woman protagonist, so if she has to get physical she will do so with the most deadly weapon possible as quickly as possible because if the bad guy gets his hands on her, she’s toast.

Add in sex. Sex works different for women. Sex for most women requires a lot more trust than for a man, because of that difference in size and strength. Despite that, women have sex drives too. Yet most depictions of female protagonists by men have their female protagonist either be basically virginal and asexual with no discernable sex drive, or have her slinking up to villains to use sex as a weapon. But you can’t use something as a weapon that a villain can basically just take from you. Neither of these extremes, asexuality or hypersexuality, are normal or healthy. Depictions of healthy sexual relationships between men and women in fiction with female protagonists, especially in the mystery/thriller genre, seems oddly scarce. One of the things I like about the fiction of Janet Evanovich is that her female protagonists do have a healthy sex drive and some healthy sexual relationships. But then, she isn’t a male writer.

There is a scene in “The Doorways of Winter” where the female protagonist has basically the same thought as Margaret Atwood above, knowing that this murderous drug dealer she is dealing with in an attempt to save a girl’s life could kill her with his bare hands with no more thought than swatting a fly and there would be very little she could do about it regardless of any bad-assitude on her part because she is just physically too small to deal with him without a firearm, which she doesn’t have. What she does have is a support network including both a retired cop and some very scary relatives to call upon to convince him that it would be a bad idea. But for women without that support network or without the wits and tongue to enlist them in support and convince the potential abuser that their existence means attacking her is a bad idea, well, that explains the domestic violence statistics.

Which is why the first thing domestic abusers do is cut women off from their support networks…

Do I think that it’s possible for a man to write a realistic female protagonist? I think the answer to that is “maybe”, but not easily. I sort of dodge the question by writing female protagonists who aren’t normal in some way. They were orphaned and abused, or raised by a predator to be a killer, or otherwise have an abnormal background that can be used as an explanation for them behaving in ways that normal women don’t behave. Still, I try not to treat them as men with boobs and instead make them abide by the same realities that normal women have to abide by, such as the realities of physical limits compared to most of the men they’ll encounter and things like bras and birth control and periods, and try to give them a relatively normal and healthy sex drive. I also try to avoid stereotypes. I don’t always succeed, but (shrug). So it goes.

– Badtux the Fiction Penguin

Exercise: “Depict a woman in your fiction.”

Okay….

Emma put the food on platters in the middle of the battered table, then put out plates and silverware, worn spoons and forks and steak knives on pieces of paper towel. Emma nodded at Mara. Mara nodded back and walked to the door to the garage and opened it to the sight of a large tattooed man working on a Harley Davidson motorcycle, and Todd drinking a beer leaning against the opposite wall. Todd saw Mara at the same time that Mara said “Dinnertime!”

The large tattooed man turned. He had greasy black hair and was wearing a wife-beater t-shirt and blue jeans and combat boots that looked all stompy. He looked at Mara up and down, looked at Mara’s red sneakers and brown cargo shorts and khaki t-shirt and short brown hair, noted the solidity of her build but also clearly noting that she was fairly small and not a physical threat to him, and then said “Who the fuck are you?”

Not depicted as a seductress or sultry or a sex object. Could be gay (note, she isn’t), but could also be just a strong willed person who is practical and annoyed by pants that have insufficient pockets for all her treasures and hair that is a pain in the rear to take care of and gets in the way of her doing things she wants to do. Not at all the sort of description that I usually see of women (or a teenage girl in this case) in fiction written by men.

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“You were right and I was wrong,” Mara said. “I went into the situation not knowing enough. I could have been killed.”

Mara’s mother smiled on her end. “Yet you were not. I am very proud of you. Not many fifteen year olds can walk into the lair of a predator and come out getting more than they expected, and few of them are fifteen year old girls. I am not pleased that you disobeyed my direct instructions, but I am pleased that you proved to be the person I believe you to be. Someone of consequence. Someone to be taken seriously. Even at age fifteen. When you grow up you will be something spectacular.”

“I was channeling you,” Mara said quietly. “I was thinking, what would Momma do? Then it was on autopilot. I just did it, what I thought you would do, without thinking about it. When everything changed, when I realized that my assumptions were wrong, I didn’t even need to think about what to do next, I just did it. I… I guess I should thank you for that. All those years observing you, observing how you think, how you handle things. Not many fifteen year old girls get to grow up with someone like you.”

“I remember when I realized, when you were eight years old, when I realized that you being quiet was not you being a sheep, it was you observing. I am pleased that your observing worked so well. But Mara… don’t do anything like this again against my direct instructions. You swam into dangerous waters, and you still have much to learn.”

“I understand,” Mara said.

“Still. Also understand that I am pleased that you proved someone of consequence. Do not squander that. I will talk with you later.” Then she signed out.

Mara’s mother… Mara understood that her mother did love her, in her own way. Her mother was who her mother was. It made her happy when her mother called her someone of consequence, someone to be taken seriously. For people like her mother, that was perhaps the ultimate compliment.

How was she going to teach that to someone who had not spent fifteen years observing a predator?

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[Note: Earlier that day Mara basically verbally kicked an abuser in the balls, saying “I am only sexually attracted to men. Too bad you’ll never be one.” One of the abuser’s friends has now tracked down Mara and is trying to convince her to go easier on his friend. Mara is still 15 and this is in the school cafeteria.]

“I live two houses down from him. We’ve been friends since we were little. But when he got to high school… he’s not… smart. He got angry. He started doing things he shouldn’t do and taking it out on people around him like his little sister. He’s not a bad person, really, he’s just….”
“Weak,” Mara said.
Will looked down at his own tray. “Yeah.”
Mara ate another mouthful of food and Will picked at his.
Mara continued. “He models his behavior after his father, who is also weak and scared that someone will discover that. They abuse that girl to make themselves feel powerful. That is evil.”
“Evil is a strong word,” Will said. He didn’t look like he disagreed. Just having trouble stomaching it.
Mara shrugged. “Every day, we make a decision about how we will live life that day. Every day we choose. He has made his choices. So be it. He is what he is and nothing you or I say or do will change that, in my experience.”
“You’re not talking like a Russian anymore,” Will noted. “You’re talking like someone from Southern California.”
Mara replied in Russian, “I am Mara Kramarov from Moscow, Russia.” Will, of course, did not understand a word, though he may have picked up her name and the word “Rosiya”. Mara continued in English. “English is not my native language, so I try to imitate whatever seems to be an appropriate accent. Unless I am being very formal and Russian. I sound very Russian then.”
“What… what were you in Russia?”
“I was a child of course,” Mara replied. “What, you think every Russian child comes out of the womb as a KGB agent with a dozen ways of killing people? No. My mother is a police agent and she hired me as an interpreter to translate for some bad people, so I have seen bad people. I have conversed with bad people. None of them turned good. It may happen, I suppose, but not in my experience. Once someone has made the choice to be evil they do not choose otherwise.”
“But Todd didn’t really choose, it was sort of chosen for him…”
“He could have chosen otherwise. You, you are not evil. You are concerned about your friend, that is not the act of an evil person. He could have modeled himself upon you rather than upon his father. There are likely others in the community that he could have chosen as his role model. He did not. He chose. He continues to choose. If you feel otherwise feel free to prove me wrong and convince him to not do evil. I will admit I am wrong then. But only then.”
“You are very cynical,” Will complained.
“I am Russian,” Mara said. “If our winters are not trying to kill us, our government is trying to kill us. Cynicism is our national sport. But as I say, feel free to prove me wrong. If so, I will admit I am wrong.” She glanced at her watch, realized lunch period was almost over, and started eating faster.
Will was picking at his food. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. Pointlessly, Mara thought.
Mara swallowed the last of the mixed vegetables, then slurped down the applesauce. Her tray was empty. She looked for where to take the empty trays and spotted it. But before she stood up she gave Will some advice.
“You do what you can. You do what you must. You do what is right. You make that choice, every day, to do what is right. That is what you do.”
“You make it sound easy,” Will complained.
“No. Never easy. But every day you choose what kind of person you will be. Will you choose the way of good and stand up and do what is right, or will you choose evil? That is your choice, every day. Choose.” And Mara stood up and took up her tray. She saw Will looking troubled. But there was no more advice she could give him.

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(Natalie and Mara are backpacking in the Sierra Nevada, occasionally doing some climbing. Mara is between her freshman and sophomore years in high school, Natalie is between her freshman and sophomore years in college and is loud and bold and in-your-face with bright green hair slowly growing out to black. The trip was arranged by Mara’s mother, who decided that Mara needed a female role model in her life with similar interests. Note that Mara’s dream job is backcountry ranger.)

They met forest rangers from time to time. About half the time they were asked for permits and bear canisters. Permits were easy, but bear canisters were buried underneath climbing gear and it always took thirty minutes of unpacking and then re-packing to get them out, show them to the ranger, and put them back away and putting the climbing gear back on top. Mara understood the necessity of the bear canisters, bears habituated to human food had to be killed as a danger to humans so the best way to keep the bears alive was to keep the food away from them in bear-proof containers, but they’d had to show their bear canisters to get their permits. Surely that was enough?

Mara asked that question of one of the rangers finally, and the ranger just smiled and shook his head. “Some people think bear canisters are too heavy, so they dump their food out of the canister as soon as they get out of the permit station.”

“That’s so irresponsible!” Mara exclaimed, and Natalie grinned and said “Kiddo, keep that dewy-eyed naïveté as long as you can, because you’ll find out soon enough that people suck and they’ll do stupid irresponsible things just to do them. Stupid fuckers. Seen any of those asswipes today, Mr. Ranger?”

The ranger pulled out his ticket book and showed them a few pages.

Mara’s faith in humanity was dashed even further than it’d already been.

Virtually all of the rangers they encountered in their months of travel were men. The women rangers were mostly in the visiter centers or interpretive centers. Mara was somewhat surprised when they were stopped in the back country one afternoon by a woman ranger. While they were unpacking their backpacks to show the ranger their bear canisters, Mara started grilling the lady ranger on what it took to become a ranger, and the lady ranger replied with the details of how she became a ranger — the college degree, the law enforcement training, the years of seasonal work, and finally a permanent job. It was a nomadic life, the lady ranger explained, where she could be moved to a different national forest at any time based on the needs of the Forest Service.

And then Mara brought the elephant into the room that everybody had been tiptoeing around. “You’re the only lady backcountry ranger that we’ve seen. Knowing what you know, would you recommend that I try to become a backcountry ranger?”

The ranger almost deflated at that, and was silent for long seconds. Finally she said, “the lawsuits speak for themselves.”

“The lawsuits?” Mara asked, baffled.

Natalie intervened there. “Yeah, the Forest Service got sued by dozens of women who claim that they were discriminated against and treated badly by their supervisors for the crime of being women. It fucking sucks.”

“You have to want it a lot,” the lady ranger said. “If you don’t, you won’t last.”

“I see,” Mara said. She showed the ranger her bear canister full of food and other smelly items, then put it away and re-packed in silence.

People suck, Natalie had said. Mara had known that intellectually, but this lesson in how much they sucked hit closer to home than Mara liked.

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There was no back.

“And what will happen to…” Carlos waved towards the chained man beyond the one-way glass window.

“It is not our place to ask,” Mara said. “They will take him back to jail and file charges against him, or a predator will go finish the job of reducing him to nothing that I started then he will be killed, or he will simply be killed and disappeared. I don’t know what will happen to him and I do not want to know. Sometimes not knowing is best, yes?”

“I don’t think I can live like this,” Carlos said softly.

“I know,” Mara said. “But what choice do we have? The world is what it is. I was raped. For a few minutes, I got to live out every rape victim’s private fantasy of making the rapist feel that terror and helplessness. It changes nothing, but it is done. Now we live our lives, and what happens to the rapist… that is between him and people who are not us, people whose job is to protect us from people like that. That is life. We live the life we have, because it is the only one there is.”

“So bleak…”

Mara smiled. “I’m Russian. If I’m not being bad-ass I’m brooding. That’s how we are.” She turned to her mother. “Carlos needs a ride home. For that matter, I need a ride home too.” Mara took Carlos’s hand, and turned towards the door.

Behind her, two large men approached the chained man in the next room. One unlocked his chains from the floor while the other controlled him with huge hands attached to arms the size of small trees. The chained man was then jerked out of the chair and dragged out of the room. Mara did not look back. There was no back. There was only forward, one day at a time, until there wasn’t.
——————————————-
Yes, I am writing my Russian novel.
Mara is fourteen years old in this passage. Her mother is a high ranking official in some agency that is so confidential that even Mara does not know who her mother actually works for. Her mother is not exactly warm and cuddly. Her notion of helping her daughter cope with being raped was to allow her daughter to terrorize the rapist for a few minutes. Here is the photo I use to represent Mara’s mother in my head.

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