Monday, October 21, 2013

"When all fruit fails, then welcome the Haws"

            In my writing, I have a tendency to describe the crushed carnations in so much detail that I mask the actual plot on why they got choked in the first place. Sometimes, I’m just too serious. I decided to parody myself. Below is a scene that I wrote for a very serious character, Mary Blevins, who has a very serious mission. In the original, she’s much more controlled, always on point. She’s not the kind of assassin who would stick her thumb in boiling stew to help her remember which bowl she placed the poison!
The seeded haw berries floated in the oily stew dull and bloated like bellied-up whales beached against the steam-shrouded islands of cabbage and beef. The gray salt she carefully sprinkled over the surface disappeared to the depths with the stir of the spoon. Its acrid stench in the shaker made Mary worry, but the pungent mint leaves she added in haste thankfully overtook all the senses.

Her Lady’s stew contained no mint, but sage instead. The salt; only a smidgeon of dried sea. And instead of haw berries, her Lady's stew had the last of the cranberries. There could be no mistaking.

Yet... Where did she lay that spoon? She searched the tray frantically. No; it was not there. She leaned over the tub and yes; yes, it was in tub. Just to be sure, Mary grabbed the silverware on the tray and reset with new. She then placed the bowls on the tray: her Lady’s to the left; her Lord’s to the right. She pulled two chunks of bread from the loaf and set them and two glasses of honey-sweetened goats milk on the tray; wiped the lip of the glasses with her towel.

She tightened her apron, took in a courageous breath, and then lifted the tray to her waist. From the kitchen, she navigated around the marble table of the bakery room and then finally out into the cold dining chamber where she caught a glimpse of her hurried reflection in a glass above the chest. Mary paused; looked over her shoulder, but she too far past the mirror. She took two careful steps back to find herself.

Strands of her black hair had pulled free from under her cap. Mary had the inclination to fix it and to tighten her apron again, but fought the urges. Was she not shivering? The tray pulled down heavily on her arms. She readjusted as she stared into the mirror. She was not shivering. Has it come down to this? A Blevins – a daughter of Sean Blevins, a devout…. The fire from the main chamber beyond split the pine and sent sparks snapping like a slap in the face. Devoted. Catholic.

Mary blinked the reflection away from her eyes and carried on to the main chamber. Though the fire was expressive, the chill from the autumnal gale pierced the manor with sharp, spiteful teeth. She had heard its whistling screech through the front door all the way into the kitchen. The stone floor robbed the comfort of the rug; Mary imagined frost from her breath, but did hear the crash of the sea. She pictured her Lady, warmed under her blankets, wrapped in the arms of her Lord. Yes. In her chamber, they waited. He waited.

She stepped around the sitting room, her eyes falling onto the bowls as she paused at the foot of the stairs. Her Lord has the mint; her Lady has not. The haws are his. She has the crans. Of course, they both had sage, yet only her Lord's bowl has the mint. Yes. Where is the mint?

Mary bent over the bowl on the right and searched for the leaves. Silly of her, she knew, for they had to be there. She left the leaves whole, so there could be no mistaking it as sage. Furthermore... Furthermore, he had the haws, and there they are in his bowl; the bowl on the right. She dabbed the stew with her finger, and the haw berries drifted away. There! There. One leaf of three. She shook her head and tried to blink away her worry. Damn, that whistling haunt. The Cold stone. The Mint!

She took to the stairs with careful footing, the air warmer as she ascended. The stew stirred faster at the bowls edges, she noticed, while the haw berries slid round in a clump as if they swam in syrup. But so, too, the cranberries behaved as such. No, she thought; not this again. She stilled on the stairs, leaned against the banister, and studied the tray over. What if…? What if the stews had sloshed? How can she tell that they did not? She bent down, balanced the tray on her knee, slid the bowls away from each other, and looked for puddles. There were none. Dear Lord, she thought, and released her breath. But just to be sure…

Mary lifted herself from the stair and danced her right hand around the tray edge. She reached over the bowl and gently dipped her thumb into it. Right is the Lord’s. The Lady’s, to the left…to the left. The heat scalded the thin skin around her thumbnail; the pain came two steps later. Carefully....ever so gently, she took nine steps more to the landing, the heat now burning her thumb to the bone.

She wiped her eyes with her arms, her teeth clenched to brave off the pain. She took down the hall to her Lady’s chamber door. The pain was worth it. Mary pushed the tray against it and knocked. The pain was of little importance. She could lose a limb, if necessary.

When Lady Ceara called her in, Mary gasped and suddenly remembered to remove her thumb from the stew. As she opened the door, Mary was met with the happiest of countenance. Her Lady was smiling, wide-eyed, and sitting on her bed. She was reading a book and fully clothed.

“What is this?”

Mary sat the tray on the table; she looked around the chamber. “Dinner. It is beef and cabbage, my Lady. It is...stew.”

“How pleasant.”

“Where…is Lord Tyler, my Lady?”

“Mary. He is off with my brother. They left for Belfast yesterday evening. You did not know?”
Belfast? “How would I have known, my…” Mary turned to the tray, looked over her bowls. Looked over her stew; the cabbage and the beef; the cranberries and the haw berries. Belfast? She peered at the haws, and then she searched for the leaves. She could not see them. They must—“

“I was about to come. I am feeling much better. Would you mind taking it back down? Oh – why bother? Just set it down here on the bureau.”

The leaves. “Yes, my…Lady.” The leaves! Where did they...? Lady’s to the left is sage; it should have sage and nothing more. The right bowl; only his bowl, should have the mint. Three.


Mary’s thumb twitched; she looked down at it. Her thumb was dark red, swollen. Because, she thought, it was in the right bowl she had dipped… In the corner of the tray sat a lonely crab. She gasped, sent the tray to the floor! Lady Ceara gasped. Mary bent down as if to have lost her balance.

“My apologies, my Lady. My apologies. No – please stay in your bed. I will have this up with no worries.”

Mary took off her apron and soaked the spilled stew; soaked the spilled stew and cupped the cabbage and beef onto the tray; the cranberries speckled the floor like festive candies; the haw berries lay dull as whales beached on the shore, bloated and dead.

Image created by RS Wireman                  


  1. LOL, I'm not sure how this might compare to your original, but I found it riveting other than I'm not sure I would have figured out she was planning to poison "my lord," but since you told us we'll never know! Were you trying to be parody/funny or were you trying to be parody/overdoing your penchant for details? At any rate, reading this out of context, I could see it working as a slow motion, highly dramatic, climatic type scene. Doubtful it could work for an entire story let along a novel at that level of intensity. Was it John Gardner who said that the details of setting and description are the lifeblood of fiction?

    1. I think I was teasing poor Mary Blevins more than anything.

      On the detail, I submitted a short story (Kerr) that gave birth to Mary and this scene. The reviewers felt my writing was too poetic, repetitive, dense, and slightly bizarre. So... I took what I had last written and had some fun with it as a sort of cleansing therapy, the cracking of my knuckles, to re-evaluate what I am doing with this planned set of stories. I'll let you know how it goes!