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Beast4

Louis was up at six the following morning. He dressed, walked out into the street, and saw no one—not Antoine, not a single street vender, not a clucking chicken. No cafés were open, it seemed, so Louis plodded back up to his room, smoked a cigarette, and returned to bed.

At ten o’clock, a boot sailed through his open window and landed on his coverlet. Outside, the world was now awake—people yammered to one another, horses snorted, and wagon wheels cracked over stones. Louis started when the boot hit the bed, one lanky leg free from his bedclothes hung over the side, his sock dangled limp over his toes. His hair stuck to his forehead.

Il est temps de se réveiller!” Antoine’s voice floated up from the street.

Sortir du lit!” shouted another.

Louis listened, rubbed his eyes and flattened his mustache, then pushed the blankets out of the way and swung his feet to the floor. Grabbing the boot, he went to the window. Below, Antoine and Henri stood waving and laughing. Henri was missing a boot. He wiggled his stocking toes toward Louis who lobbed the boot back at him. It overshot and Henri jumped, but missed and ran after it.

“I thought you said you would be up early this morning, Monsieur Steams!” Antoine shook his finger up at Louis.

“I was!”

Antoine nodded his head, but crossed his arms.

“I was!” Louis repeated.

Antoine waved both hands in front of his face to dismiss the silliness and Henri rejoined him, pulling on his boot.

“Enough. Come,” Antoine said. “We haven’t got all day.”

Louis heaved a deep sigh then turned from the window. He re-dressed, combed his hair, threw water on his face, grabbed his bag, and headed down to join the Frenchmen.

Bonjour,” he said to them brushing his moustache down with his hand. They nodded, turned, and started walking. Louis ran to catch up, then equaled their tempo. It seemed that no matter how much time he spent amongst the French, he would never quite match their pace—not just their stride, but their pace of life. He could happily be either productive or lazy, but he could, apparently, never be both at the same time as they were. But no matter—he would be free and clear of most people in just a day or so, if this transaction went as he hoped. Then he would have his donkey, he would have his provisions, he would be ready to start off, and he could be left alone to wallow in his self-pity and tobacco, surviving on his wits.

The three men made their way down the main thoroughfare, turned right, then left. From la Rue de L’Abbaye, Louis absently heard a clanking bell, and as they wound their way, they seemed to be getting closer to it. It became louder and more annoying to him. Finally, they came upon a compact courtyard, and the source of the clanking. There stood an old man next to a small cart pulled by an almost smaller donkey.

Louis recognized the son of the old woman he’d been sketching the previous day.

The cart was piled with what looked like pamphlets, but upon closer examination there were also calendars, maps, tablets of paper, and so on. The man was surrounded by children. All sorts of children, from every class—thin and fat children, clean and dirty children, all of them yowling about one thing or another.

“He is, like, how do you say?” Henri turned to Louis. “Pied Piper.”

“Except with a cow bell,” Louis said. “And he doesn’t much seem to want these children following him.”

“Oh non,” joined Antoine “He hates it. Hates children. And beats his ass.”

“That ass?” Louis asked, incredulous.

The donkey was tiny, mouse colored and sweet looking, but with a jaw as resolute as Jeanne d’Arc’s as the flames touched her nose.

“She is small, but I’ve seen her pull much more than this,” Antoine continued.

“She?” Louis’s heart broke for the animal—to be beaten while one toiled was one thing, but to be beaten by such a brute who would strike a woman; that was too much.

Oui, she could run both you and your sack up and down the mountains,” Henri added.

“I’ll take her,” said Louis. He didn’t know if she could. She didn’t look like she could. But chivalry sometimes took precedence over practicality.

Antoine jerked his head toward the spectacle in the courtyard, signaling their movement into the fray.

The sea of children parted with Antoine in the lead, Henri second, and Louis last. Dirty faces looked up, some nonplussed, some annoyed, a few scared. The one that had been ringing the donkey’s bell all this time finally stopped, having found something more interesting—these three adults who dared breach their ranks.

The old man looked upon them with relief.

Comment puis-je vous servir, messieurs?

Antoine addressed the man. They spoke quietly and Louis couldn’t hear the conversation above the din of children, one of whom kept slapping him across the rear and then looking away as if innocent.

“Is he willing to part with her?” Louis asked Henri, who was closer to the discussion.

“I believe so,” Henri replied. “He wants to demonstrate her worthiness.”

“Not necessary; I’ll take her,” said Louis, turning for the fifth time hoping to catch the slapping culprit in the act. “How much?”

“He insists,” Henri said.

“Really, I’ll take her,” Louis argued, then abruptly spun to the nearest, shortest fellow. “Arrêter maintenant ou je vais vous couper la main!

The crowd became quiet and stared at Louis, even the three men. He turned his palms up to them.

“Obviously, I wouldn’t really cut off his hands, but this one, you see—”

“That is one way to get their attention,” Henri said approvingly. The old man had started unhooking the donkey from his cart and Antoine whispered into the ears of the children closest to him, who, in turn, whispered to their neighbor until word spread throughout the crowd. Most smiled and nodded, some laughed and cheered, a few—just a few—shyly sneaked away.

What happened next Louis might have paid money to see back in his Edinburgh college days. Surrel brought the little donkey around through the mass of children, who moved accordingly and lined up.

“Now,” Antoine said to Louis. “Surrel will demonstrate her strength and endurance.”

Louis made to protest, momentarily afraid of what he was about to witness, but it was too late. The old man lifted the first child in line and sat him on the donkey’s back. She responded accordingly and kicked the child off. The boy flew over the head of the animal and rolled in the dust. The children cheered, Henri laughed out loud, and Antoine smirked. Louis looked on, stunned. For no sooner was the first child stoically dusting himself off, Surrel was loading the donkey’s back with another, who soon went the way of the first. Louis noticed the first boy had actually rejoined the end of the line.

“Won’t someone get hurt?” Louis asked Antoine.

Probablement,” he replied, his eyes trailing up, then down, to watch another child fly through the air.

Surrel loaded one after another, sitting forwards, backwards, laid over sideways, boys and girls, and even a small dog, who aborted his flight mid-launch by flinging himself off to the side. The old man turned and smiled at Louis, as if to say, See? See how many she can go through?

After about ten minutes of this demonstration, the children began to grow weary and lose courage, until they had all cleared the courtyard with the exception of those poor souls who lived there, and they just disappeared into their abodes.

Surrel clapped his hands together.

Ah oui!” he exclaimed.

“You see?” said Henri. “There is no better ass for your journey.”

“What?” Louis answered. “She threw every child in the village. What do you think she will do to my gear?”

His two French friends frowned and then sauntered over to the old man, who stood holding the donkey’s bridle and petting her. They spoke to him, and as they did his face grew firm, his mouth pulling taut into an angry line that threatened to wrap around his head. Suddenly, he flattened his hand and began hitting the poor animal across the nose, yelling obscenities.

Antoine and Henri backed away, but Louis flew forward and grabbed the old man’s arm to keep him from administering one more knock.

“Stop it!” he yelled. “Stop it now, or I’ll cut off your hands!”

The old man stopped, without understanding what Louis had said. Antoine and Henri looked to the Scot, eyebrows raised, seeing that this threat, unlike the one to the children, he may have meant.

The donkey stood, her head raised and eyes closed, expecting another blow. Louis reached over and laid his hand on her brow, drawing his slender fingers down to her snout. She flinched at first, then opened her eyes and looked at him.

Combien?” Louis asked.

Soixante-cinq,” the old man replied, bemused at Louis’s sentiment for such a lowly beast.

“Sixty-five francs?”

Surrel looked at him, and added, “et un verre du brandy.”

Louis sighed. She actually cost less than what he paid for his specially made sleeping sack: eighty francs and two glasses of beer. The monetary cost was a steal, and the glass of brandy he would undoubtedly make up later down the road.

Oui,” Louis agreed and nodded his head to Surrel. He paid the old man the money, and then agreed to pay him his brandy the following morning, before Louis started out on his excursion.

After the old man removed her bell, Henri took the donkey’s reigns and started to lead her away.

“I will take her to Jacque’s and stable her there. He will make you a pad to saddle her with,” he said. “Lots of straps.”

“Wait,” Louis said and walked over to the animal, whose eyes moved about her, knowing something was happening, but not what. Louis stood in front of her and took her bridle with a hand on each side. He straightened out her head and looked at her intently.

“What is her name?” he called out to Surrel, who was counting his payment for a fourth time. “Quel est son nom?

The old man shook his head and waved the question away.

“No name,” Henri confirmed.

Louis looked at the donkey, his donkey. Her deep-chestnut eyes glimmered from her soft grey-brown fur, her eyelashes long and dark. He took her ears in his hands and ran them through his palms, soft like rabbit’s fur. She closed her eyes and lowered her head.

Modestine,” he finally said.

Henri laughed, but Louis ignored him. It was the perfect appellation for this donkey—he was embarrassed now to call this feminine equestrian spirit an “ass”—as here she was, after such a debasing, modest and without conceit. He caressed her ears once more before letting Henri lead her away and thought he felt one small fraction of his heart free itself from Fanny’s grip and fasten to that lovely little being.

Smiling, Louis shook Antoine’s hand, thanked him ten times, and then the men retired to an early lunch at le café du loup.

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Beast3

Earlier, Louis had agreed to spend this evening with four men—Antoine, Henri, Lucien, and Claude—who, during the day, like many of the town’s citizens, looked upon Louis with contempt, but come evening, as he grew closer to the start of his trek, drank copious amounts of wine with him, to his health, which was precarious, and to his plight, whatever that was. They hadn’t asked, and Louis was grateful.

Earlier that morning he’d returned from Le Puy, about fifteen miles northwest, with a specially constructed sleeping sack. It had taken his whole stay so far to have it made, but now that it was in his possession, he felt optimistic. His success in finally procuring the first of two major components of his trip was all over town by evening and when he entered the café, the patrons greeted him with a roar of congratulations and cheer.

“Monsieur Steams!” some of them shouted. Since he’d arrived, what began mistakenly as “Monsieur Steamson” had deteriorated into “Monsieur Steams,” and in a sense, became a friendly term of endearment, although the affection of the people of Monastier was fickle and fleeting.

The four Frenchmen hugged and kissed him as they directed him bodily to a seat in a comfortable corner behind a small, clothed table. He fell onto the hard, wooden bench, hair flopping over wide-spread eyes, which darted from one companion to the next and back again, volleying between agitation and joviality. The almost violent, jostling proximity of these men—who were in many ways still strangers—made his blood race and his palms sweat, but he attempted to project an air of calm, of good humor, even.

He produced his tobacco pouch and began rolling cigarettes, which he lined up on the table after lighting the first. They called for wine, but the serving maid had already set a few bottles down before the cry for drink ended, followed by a small basket of bread.

Louis pulled at his mustache. If he had been amongst his friends, he would waste no time making himself comfortable. At home, his customary arrangement was half-slumped, half-draped in and across a chair, or more often than not, perched upon the arm, should it be weight bearing. More frequently even than that, his position would matter not, as his mind, more importantly, would be engaged as such to render him blue in the face. Not to mention his listeners exhausted. But he was not at home, and though his limbs ached to animate and his brain bubbled with any number of exhilarating topics, his role as foreigner kept him quiet, or otherwise occupied with the mundane but distracting tasks of cigarette rolling and mustache pulling.

The men re-introduced themselves, but Louis knew each of them from the street. In the last week, he’d overheard all of these men, at all times of the day, with myriad people and at various stages of drunkenness, argue politics. And with three bottles of Bordeaux with which to wet their lips and brains, he feared the four of them together.

Antoine was a Legitimist and longed for the return of the Bourbon kings; Henri was an Orléanist, another monarchist also for the House of Bourbon, but a different branch; Lucien was a staunch Imperialist and wept at the mention of Bonaparte I; and Republican Claude’s mouth watered with words of The Revolution. Being a Scot, Louis understood the passion of bloody political travails but he had little desire, tonight, to engage a discussion on the matter of French rule, particularly if his companions’ sense and sobriety drained with the bottle and so too their grasp on English. Louis loved la langue française, but it was true that the more he drank, the quicker he forgot word order and gender, and it was inevitable that he would inadvertently insult someone before the night was through.

He reached for a boule of bread from the basket, tore it in half, then anxiously pulled small bites from it, popping them into his mouth while the four men settled around him. The café was cozy and lighted by lamps ensconced on the walls. The tables and chairs were rustic, but covered and upholstered, with a crisp, red and white checked cloth. The walls displayed a range of décor, from Royal memorial plates to framed family portraits, from embroideries to antlers, culminating in a massive wolf’s head mounted above the entrance. Its eyes were glassy, its lips curled into a threatening snarl, made tragically comic by the inexpertise of the taxidermist. A quality mount would have looked you in the eye wherever about the room you roamed; you should have felt the breath of the thing on you. This however looked exactly like what it was—a dead animal manipulated grossly with wire and stuffing, collecting dust.

Louis chewed, smiling and nodding at the men around him. Now that their immediate needs were met, they turned to Louis.

Finalement! You have got your sack!” Henri roared and slapped Louis on the back several times causing him to almost choke on a piece of bread. The men laughed.

Oui,” said Louis feebly, crushing out his first cigarette and lighting the next. He mustered a breath to match the men in their zeal and volume. “Finalement, I have got my sack.”   The long vowels and rhotic accent of Louis’s Scotch-English tongue played amusedly on the faces of his companions, though it was his accomplishment that truly stirred their affable response.

They cheered and raised their mugs, Louis snatching his up—nearly spilling it—and joining in their toast to his success. And it was a success. Louis could now enter into the French autumnal wilderness fairly sure of staying warm and dry. He’d opted away from actually packing a tent, for fear that his more unscrupulous fellow travelers would take him for what he was—a relatively inexperienced tourist out camping—and take him unawares as he slept. So, he’d set his mind to devise a piece of green canvas, measuring six by six feet, stuffed with blue sheep’s wool and designed to convert into a sack with which to carry his things.

“This will keep you dry, eh?” asked Claude. “But, eh, la tête . . . your head. It will stick out.” The Frenchman illustrated by tapping his own head and the others laughed.

Louis reached into the knapsack at his side and pulled out what initially looked like a handful of fur. The men fell silent and watched him stretch the thing over his head. It was a cap, with earflaps and some apparatus that covered his nose and mouth like a respirator. Louis pulled the flaps down and tied them under his chin, then pulled the face muff down as well.

“Ha!” he said, his voice muted in the mass of fur. The men stared—he appeared a massive vole wearing a thin mask of flesh and eerily human eyes that blinked. Louis looked from man to man until they burst into another bout of uncontrollable laughter. He squinted approvingly under the fur, then pulled the muff and flaps back up, tying them now over the top of his tête.

“You are very dignified,” laughed Claude and poured more wine into Louis’s now-empty cup. “Like a king.”

Antoine and Henri’s smiles faded and they both simultaneously drank to cover their annoyance. Claude snickered.

“Dignified like an ass,” Henri coughed. “Like a Republican pack mule.”

Claude half-stood, eyes blazing, but settled back, glancing at Lucien, who looked into his cup.

“Better a pack mule peasant than a flatulent Corsican.”

Louis’s face fell and he watched as Antoine and Henri held Lucien from jumping over the table at Claude who chuckled and drank. A flurry of angry French filled the air like black smoke and Louis flew to his feet, waving his hands to clear it.

“Gentlemen! Messieurs!” he pleaded, “S’il vous plait, j’ai d’autres affaires! I am in need of an ass!”

The men quit fighting and looked at Louis. His fur cap had slid down to the tops of his eyes and the string keeping his earflaps up had come loose, allowing them to flop down like a set of donkey’s ears.

Someone on the opposite side of the café brayed, and the anger was dispelled. The four political rivals laughed and slapped each other on their backs. Louis, too, his slight frame shaking beneath each palm of goodwill. He pushed his cap back and retied the flaps as he sat down with his friends.

“So, you are an ass,” said Lucien, and the other three snickered.

Non, I am in need of an ass,” Louis corrected. “L’âne. A donkey.”

The man across the café brayed again and Henri threw a piece of bread in his direction.

Louis was a cup and a half in and feeling the influence—he knew if he’d had to get up quickly, he might fall down just as fast. But on he drank. When men of violently opposing beliefs can sit without strangling each other, it was a cause for celebration, as if Louis needed another reason to celebrate.

“I can help you,” said Antoine, patting his chest.

“Yes?” Louis said and held up his cup to the man, who tapped it with his own.

“Yes.” Antoine drained his mug and pushed the empty bottle out of his way, wrapped his fingers around the neck of a half-full bottle, and poured. Before Louis could lower his own cup, it was being topped off once more.

“There is a man in town, Surrel,” Antoine continued. “A peddler. He moves from village to village; he sells . . . eh, calendrier. Almanach.”

Louis listened, but replied. “I don’t need a calendar. A map, maybe.”

Antoine waved his hand in front of his face, “Non, non. He beats his ass.”

Henri suppressed a giggle and Claude slapped his arm.

Pardon?” Louis asked.

Antoine thought for a moment.

“I think he would be willing to sell his donkey.”

“Oh!” Louis exclaimed. “Really?”

“He hates it,” Antoine continued. “Always beating it.”

“That’s terrible,” Louis said.

The other men nodded and drank.

“Tomorrow,” said Antoine. “I will take you to him.”

I would be most grateful,” Louis said and reached across the table, grabbing Antoine by the hand and shaking it vigorously; it flopped like a fish.

“And a map,” Antoine finished.

“Yes, that certainly couldn’t hurt.”

“Where are you going?” Henri asked.

“Well,” Louis began. He’d been plotting his route in his head for weeks. “I am planning on making my way south through the Cévennes all the way down to St-Jean-du-Gard, where I will take a cab into Alès and pick up my mail.”

His destination was less the town, or even the end of his journey, as it was his mail. He had several letters prepared to put to post before he started—one to each of his friends, one to his mother, and one to Fanny. More than any of them, he hoped most to have received a reply from her.

Since she left, her letters back to him contained just enough interest and affection to keep Louis heart bound, and yet, they never satisfactorily answered his repeated and heartfelt query: Could they be together?

Louis understood the difficulties of divorce and how it might look, but in the end, he didn’t much care how it looked, only that they were together, which he impressed upon her as the most important thing. Because it was, was it not? The slow growing of time and distance between them did nothing to cool his feelings for her. And so, he asked yet again, could they be together? And he hoped desperately that, come the end of his march, he would stumble half-dead into town, fall upon the post waiting for him at the hotel he’d reserved, and his prayers would finally be answered.

Thinking of this, Louis failed to notice that the café had grown quiet. Suddenly, he felt hot and he slowly pulled the fur cap from his head. Everyone was looking at him, even the serving maid who’d come to drop off another basket of bread.

Sud?” Lucien asked.

Oui, south,” replied Louis. “Down to St-Jean-du-Gard. Then to Alès. I have, or will have, post awaiting me there.”

“You will take an eastern route, no?” Claude asked. “To Saint-Agrève?”

“Of course not. That would be almost forty kilometers out of my way,” Louis said. “No, I will go to Le Bouchet St Nicholas, then on to Pradelles, and then to Langogne—”

Mon Dieu!” shouted the brayer from the back. This time no one threw anything at him.

Non, non, non,” Claude shook his head emphatically. “Non. Non, non, non . . .

“What?” Louis asked.

The other three men also shook their heads. The serving maid shook her head as she walked away from their table. Louis thought he heard a woman gasp and his eyes darted in that direction, but Henri brought him back.

“You.” he said, tapping the table in front of him with his forefinger. “You do not want to take this journey.”

“I do,” Louis countered. “I must.”

More shaking heads. The café filled slowly with the low rumble of quiet conversations, out of which Louis pulled a few words: l’agneau, massacre, le loup. He looked at the big, grey head above the door, its pointed yellow teeth.

“What? Him?”

“Worse,” Claude muttered.

“I should think I would have more concern of being robbed.”

“That as well, perhaps.” Henri shrugged.

“No matter,” Louis said. “I carry a pistol. I’m not afraid.”

But now Louis’s head was full of wolves and thieves, and worse. What could be worse?

He drained his cup and stopped Claude from pouring more into it.

Non, s’il vous plait.” Louis smiled an apology. “Up early tomorrow.” He turned to Antoine. “To get an ass.”

Antoine’s stony face broke into a crooked smile.

Oui, Monsieur Steams,” he said. “We will certainly find you your ass.”

The four Frenchmen laughed, though not as boisterously as before. Louis felt the shift in the café was irreversible, or perhaps he would have stayed another round. He left wondering if they were laughing more with him, or at him, but it didn’t matter. He would be leaving this place soon.

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Beast2

Monastier, Goudet,

Ussel, Bouchet St. Nicolas

 

At Grez-sur-Loing, Louis didn’t make it easy for her, partly because he fought it and partly because he could not stop coughing long enough for the spoon to be in and out without clacking against his teeth. And it wasn’t that he resented being fed like a child, although that didn’t help.

            “It is what it is,” she said, and wiped spilled soup roughly from his nightshirt with an already-filthy towel. His chest shook, the coughing explosive now, and Fanny looked at him flatly until it subsided. “My husband is coming, two weeks from today. You must leave.”

            He felt he might be leaving through Death’s door, if his breaking heart didn’t kill him first.

*

Louis woke.

His journey began here. Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille nestled snug in a green valley below an irregular ridge that separated it from a troubled sky. It was a collection of plain-looking buildings with orange clay-tiled rooves that stood stark from the surrounding backdrop still verdurous from the summer sun, now heading into September.

Lovelorn and worried, Robert Louis Stevenson had flung himself upon the town. Presently, he had just finished entertaining a group of lace makers with the English language. Due to its liberal sprinkling of French, the artisans considered it merely a comical patois of their native tongue. He left some easily-amused ladies with the word “bread”—which they rolled around their lips and the concaves of their mouths until they doubled over with laughter—in search of a less excitable group of people. The rustic streets were created for wandering, in which he now indulged.

He’d arrived in France weeks ago, just after the love of his life, Mrs. Fanny Osbourne, departed London for the United States. He’d written to his parents and friends—Sidney Colvin, his editor and occasional benefactor when funds sank truly low; Charles Baxter, an old, dear college chum; and William Henley, one-legged poet and boisterous pal. All but his parents were aware of Fanny. So far as Louis had mentioned, he was here to write another travel book. But, his relations excluded, all knew of Fanny and knew what had happened.

They knew the two had met, had fallen in love, and had spent nearly two years on an emotional carousel that all too often left Louis too dizzy to stand. They also knew she was much Louis’s senior, married to another man with two children, and that she’d returned abruptly to America, so many miles away.

In all his young years, Louis had never been so in love. And had never felt so irreversibly rejected. Except for that one other time. But this was different.

He’d sent letters to his friends from Le Puy within the week of her departure, going on about the new book, Travels with a Donkey in the French Highlands. They knew Louis hurt and that she had given him only enough reason to hope, but no more. They discouraged it—the entire enterprise, beginning and ending with Fanny—and so he said little, except to declare how enthusiastic he was to embark on such an excursion.

In reality, within him was a tempest, calmed only by the act of getting from one point to another. He meant to adventure so hardily and so thoroughly as to punish the heart straight out of him, literally or figuratively; he didn’t care much which. He could arrive at the end of his journey a man without sentiment or dead. It was all the same to him.

Moreover, when he arrived dead, or dead inside, he must arrive after having conquered the worst circumstances; he must have subjugated, if not his aching soul, then certainly the petit-bourgeois sense of impropriety this sort of plan stoked in peoples’ thoughts during this sad and delicately decadent era. People of a time that at once praised the adventure, hero-worshipped the adventurer, but disdained the thought that anyone they knew should attempt such a thing. Louis scoffed at society’s polite system of tethers and drastically cut them when Fanny had left.

Drawn by the wagging tail of a small mutt, Louis seated himself on a low stone wall that stuck out like a peninsula from the corner of a boulangerie, and proceeded to scratch the animal under the chin. His wavy reflection looked back at him from the shop’s multi-paned window. At twenty-seven years old, he struck a strange and curious figure amongst the French inhabitants. As tall as the average Scotsman, his slender frame and lanky limbs gave the impression of height; his sandy-russet hair brushed the base of his neck, uncut and parted in the center. The mustache he’d long been cultivating was finally gaining respectable coverage and drooping down over the lip enough so that he had developed a nervous habit of pulling at it. Lastly, he wore a deep emerald-green velveteen jacket.

Outside the boulangerie, he sat amongst a pleasant group of women and children of all ages. Little girls in lace-trimmed pinafores skipped rope and harassed their mothers as the women took their mending to the cool, shady street. One girl approached Louis, ran her grubby hands over the sleeve of his soft jacket, then tripped away giggling. The dog went with her.

One very old woman lured him into a conversation that lasted the better part of an hour. She demonstrated her sharp wit and tongue on every subject imaginable, and every opinion Louis expressed. Had she not been so pleasant, it might have been exasperating. It continued after he’d brought out his sketchbook and began to render her as faithfully as his skill would allow. With each attempt, she passed judgment and Louis wished the world were full of more like her, for honesty seemed to be in such short supply these days.

“No, no,” she said. “That is not it. I am old, to be sure, but I’m better looking than that. We must try again.”

Louis smiled, tore the page from the book, and began once more.

Behind her, the women sewed and the children played. Men throughout the street argued and laughed over a thousand topics. Buyers of bread came and went. Louis relaxed.

As he sketched, an old man—old to Louis, but younger than the woman who sat before him—wandered up to her, bent to whisper in her ear, and then, upon her pinched face and shooing hand, left.

Mon fils,” she said, shaking her head.

Her son, Louis thought, must be as big a disappointment to her as he was to his own parents. And again, his heart sank back into the dark depths this light afternoon had brightened for a short time.

The old woman bowed to pick up a potato, signaling that, although she would love to be rendered all day, there was still work to be done. She winked at him and began to peel the vegetable with a paring knife.

Louis continued to scribble away at his work, but allowed his mind to drift over his most immediate plans. Though his boyish spirit was more than up to the journey, his adult frame, weakened by a lifetime of undiagnosable illness, was less enthusiastic. It came and went; his strength ebbed like the swells of a departing sloop against the dock. He was energized when he’d left London and it waned only now in that he could not be off soon enough.

This was not the first time he’d endeavored to make his way through tough and rugged conditions. Two years previous, at about this time of year, Louis and a friend had embarked on a canoe trip through Belgium and northern France, the product of which, An Inland Voyage, had been published just this past April. After so many essays and histories, his first real book had seen print, and now he could call himself a writer, an ink slinger for profit.

In those rare moments of emotional clarity, Louis’s thoughts still inclined to writing, to finding the next conceptual path worth treading, and based on experience, to actually tread a path—to go on an adventure, much to the horror of his parents—was the best way to plot one’s way forward on the page. For now, better than writing fiction—why wrack one’s brains thinking what’s to come next when one can just do and make notes?

But that outing had been before he’d met Fanny.

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Beast1

Preface

Robert Louis Stevenson had started awake in William Henley’s drawing room with such violence he’d almost toppled from the chair in which he practically lay. To his initial surprise, he found himself at Henley’s writing desk, Fanny’s letter in his hand, a fire burning in the hearth. Everything right.

In his waking hours, Louis worked hard to deny all that had happened. But when sleep came—as indeed it must—he wrestled helplessly against the facts of his subconscious, the quarter of his being self-delusion could not penetrate. Flashing yellow eyes obscured suddenly by a fallen hood; claws that swiped, transforming from keratin to steel before sinking into soft flesh; the brays of a donkey punctuated by the click-clack of her tiny hooves retreating into the deeper recesses of Louis’s brain where he feared she could not be safe. To say nothing of the blood.

Louis straightened a little, pushing himself up in the chair, feeling the stationary of the letter between his fingers, the warmth of the fire on his legs. He could use a drink. It was only after one of these terrible dreams that he would willfully allow himself to think of everything that had occurred, and now, his tired reason fell languidly into that state, thinking, remembering, witnessing all over again . . . .

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So, I’ve been posting stuff over on Wattpad. It’s a rough platform, and by that, I mean, it’s not the best place for what I write. It is populated mainly by teenaged girls thirsty for, apparently, alpha-male werewolf romances. I know, I didn’t know that was even a thing, but it goes along with the fact that “toxic relationships” is also very trendy there. This makes me sad in that these poor girls have clearly internalized the “if he hurts you, it means he likes you” line adults have been feeding them their whole, short lives. And that is a bummer. I hope they grow out of it.

Florida Man Cover Placeholder

But yes, Wattpad has a massive romance (of all sorts) readership, and although Florida Man: The Battle of the Five Meth Labs: A Love Story is, well, a love story, it is a love story among many other things. I’d feel wrong tagging it with the romance genre, because it is hardly romantic (depending how you feel about electro-stimulation), and exposing these poor unsuspecting girls to Bildo and MeeMaw’s Whackin’ Dick might be a little much.

DC Cover

I do have something else up there, though: Dread Confluence. It’s a short story collection of paranormal stories set in and around Pittsburgh, Pa (two novelettes and four short stories — so far. I think it needs one or two more to really round it out.). It is chronological and spans from 1873 to 2010, so far. It is basically my 2011 MFA fiction thesis, which I haven’t really looked at since, but I think it’s good enough for folks to read. There’s an additional story, called The Obstruction (that won’t be posted until later — I update 2-3 times a week, all installments are under 300 words) that I wrote a couple years later, which was prompted by my thesis advisor, who, upon receiving a brain cancer diagnosis, said to me that it was an apt topic for one of my “scary stories.” So, I wrote one for him. It was published, actually, in a Canadian anthology a number of years ago, but since it was set in Pittsburgh, I added it to Dread Confluence.

Why am I posting on Wattpad? I dunno, really. The whole process of querying agents and publishers (at least the ones who accept unsolicited manuscripts) is a lonely, isolated experience with very little in the way of response, let alone rejection. I got knocked out of the game by a variety of ongoing personal situations in the last handful of years, and while I kept writing and doing revisions, no one was reading anything. It feels like I should just be digging a hole in the backyard and throwing the stories in there, maybe dig them up if I can manage to get an agent to bite. When you’re a writer, and you’re going through the process, it gets extremely disheartening writing into a void.

Now, I’ve got a few people reading this stuff. And they seem to be enjoying it, which is a relief.

So, that’s why. Would I rather be publishing traditionally? Absolutely. But it’s a long, hard slough, and I’m not getting any younger. I’m still querying and whatnot, and I’m considering another foray into the self-publishing jungle, but we’ll see. This is fine for now, while I work on finishing this third novel, get a few more shorts for another collection, etc. I’m still working. I’m always working on something. It’ll all come together, eventually.

 

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