No novel lives in a closet, unpublished, by choice.
Yet for twenty-five years, one did.
Not knowing what it had done wrong, the book listened to human explanations from behind the jamb. It cracked the door, when it could.
The excuses were of the usual sort: time, fortune, fame, work, marriage, children, death, failure, fear.
At very long last, the sleeping novel was reborn, reformed, digitized, and engaged for publication, beginning at the end of 2015 AD.
Characters (nearly) lost to time were found lurking on brittle paper.
Among the remaining heroes? Sarah Bronagh.
Quite young (16), the only constant in Sarah’s life is that she knows that she loves to love, no matter what others say or do.
Oh yes, and she sings.
Mostly she has to go with “country” in public, as per the demands of her community.
But in her little bedroom of echoes, she croons the blues softly, makes innocent first-base love sliding through the wide ranges and wild tremors of throaty hymns, makes walls and waves of sound and silence, echoing and resonating against herself in the corner, singing gospel, singing anything she can find to push her range, to prepare for life after a small town.
Anything to whet and hone her craft.
Bullied by the girls of her age at school, young women filling themselves with sawdust—lost, unsure, only sure to hate whoever might not be blind—Sarah ritually walks unsteadily home, shaking-off the grime of her life in the shower, where she soaps and scrubs, and does not sing.
Each day survived is softly thanked, each day praised if she can end it with a smile at the corner of her room, a smile before she sings.
She usually does, for love is her armor, and her love is (maybe) infinite.
The plot goes south and goes dark. All points diverge from any future reality one would hope to see.
But Sarah has worked too hard to compromise herself. It is that Sarah, the fictional character, who breathed shallowly for three decades, silent, alive but unborn; suffering, singing to be freed.
Secure in their anonymity, Sarah joined “character names and sketches” and waited for the cull. There were hundreds of them. Are.
In a digital heap, in contrast to the other chosen ones, her surname was forced to twirl for inspection.
Was it too complicated?
Something more simple? Riding easily on readers’ silent tongues?
To write is to ask, and to tell is to trim. “Sarah” was set in stone: she fit her name… she was Sarah, and she would always be.
But for a surname, the idea of “Bishop” was shaken into the ring.
Sarah Bishop was researched (research is easy).
To write responsibly is to check if a name, by luck or subconscious or chance, might be unfortunate in the “real” world.
Indeed, an Australian actress (unknown to the author) instantly tanked Sarah Bishop as insufficiently unique for a fictional character.
All the best to her… but, as Sarah Bronagh (?) might say, well then… fluff.
(She doesn’t curse).
The rounds of naming showed no winning lot, no miracle dropping down a pipe, and the names turned without end, laundry under a millstone.
A middle name?
Names were tossed into the air and given the usual piñata’s gauntlet.
Whoever says children are not cruel: solicit their criticism. Whoever says children are not angels with injured wings: ask their advice.
A new list of names was made over the course of days spent in general pursuit of functional literature. Consulting? Ages (11) and (13).
The list was considered and consumed, chased with a bag of wrinkled, baked, thick crisps and chips (vinegar and sea salt).
The list vanished with no gain. Effing Fluff. Kids!
Quite odd, for an author to sweat a name for umpteen hours.
Or not. Not odd. Irritating—yes, better said.
And that with a long stretch of almost empty beach calling from half a kilometer away, the sky flawless as pregnant skin, glowing green water breaking in curls, its temperature a drawn bath interrupted, left long enough to need saved by a kettle; the beach where dull-toned sand sucks on feet and, at midday, demands the focus of a fire-walker to navigate to water without dancing.
It was worth losing the ocean to find her name.
Of the many, few named characters made the last cut of casting, that horrible judgment of a creator, cold and slow as a glacier, assessing and slicing-away lesser beings like fat from a hog’s carcass; jostling, forcing precious new space to form on the deck of an ark built too small.
Skip the dreary guts of personalized search algorithms: by a certain… grace, by chance, names were keyed and toyed until the cold creator encountered a (real) young woman who was not likely to pop in a Google hit for Sarah’s [redacted] name-in-progress-then-kinda.
No, there was no relation there.
But… there were certain signs. The parallels are public record, although some cannot be seen without knowing Sarah Bronagh rather better—and as these are nowhere collected, they will not be presented here.
Say then that what was notable were mere details, teeny spokes and cogs and jewels, the Swiss movement of a hummingbird’s heart, a delicate beat powering a heavy metal timepiece… those common shards leaped for Sarah Bronagh’s throat.
Her story and intersection would have safely ended there, but for curiosity.
Authors are all cats, wondering what lies behind velvet curtains; it does not matter that most are allergic to themselves, and to others of their species—curiosity is their essential oil, the musk they cannot refuse.
This author would listen to one song—one, and only once.
A short one.
Sarah Bronagh was betrayed by the easy press of a lone white key, Sarah who leaned on the cusp of inhaled mortality.
Both Sarah and the curious cat were ducked straight into River, by Bishop Briggs. Bishop, who, like Sarah, was a singer, and other things.
Unspeakable things! The faded admonition demanding one be kind and rewind raced madly about. This version of Sarah’s imagined potential was real… and unlike Google, Bishop could not be ignored or forgotten.
Bishop’s voice strained deceptively, a carnival strongman feigning hazard over an easy lift, grunting and huffing for the crowd.
Her spirit and language and sound arrived crackling, squalling, twisting, sparking fire, alive as lighting, alive as the living seldom are, muscular and desperate—and above all else, instantly corrupting.
The author Sarah knows works best to the down-tuned growl and grind of rough-edged Nordic bands.
But that voice…
Artists who close certain doors are fools, and it would take a special fool to say Bishop Briggs does not shine in her field—she could stand, shimmering, in any company, on any stage, any genre. She will.
All of which, however, struck an existential crisis for a fictional creation, a younger, less-traveled, mussed, disconcerted, unpolished and suddenly very star-struck, imaginary Sarah.
Was that to be River’s legacy: unmaking Sarah Bronagh—had Sarah finally lived, and died, in just under four minutes?
If Sarah were gone, she would have had to leave unseen, left alone, gone out a side door, gone of a spear in her heart—even for her brutal author, that was too cruel by twice.
Or was it only cruel to him? Was the artist Judas with an empty purse?
Her death dangled before his vision.
His penance, perhaps, having sent Sarah into a closet for so very long?
What to do?
To sweat and hum, and drum a pencil on a desk; glide and harness warm currents, tempted by lazy raptors to swing freely, stuck in circles.
To eventually realize that Sarah’s song—a piece of the novel that would be unlikely to make final press—its chorus only hinted by old notes, left abstract… to see that the song proper remained largely unwritten.
Rather, entirely unwritten. And so Sarah Bronagh is not dead (yet).
Not without a dirge.
Not without reply.
For love is her armor.
Bishop Briggs, what follows is for you. Quite literally, for you alone. It does not come from this author.
What follows is a thank-you from an imagined being, one who is not yet quite alive, nor yet is she dead; this is a song by Sarah Bronagh, her raw heart’s reaction to River.
In hearing your voice, she is finding hers. She replies to you in kind, if not in quality.
I have transcribed what she sang to me, as best I can.
Sarah in the River
Don’t mind, don’t mind me—and, good morning,
I’m only warming at my edges,
Heating this heart on my soaking stone as
Reptiles reach for their basking ledges,
Eating the sun. Banished, darkness moans.
I cough the night out my throat,
Spit at the worst of the lingerings,
Refuse to breathe
The dark was full of choking cedar smoke,
Refuse to see
I’ll scream louder than the lark sings (soon)
I refuse to be
Singing softly in the deeps of the hedges;
Pour-out the pot, love, it will scald our last good-night,
Help me find my voice with your fingers,
Fumble through the ring of broken keys;
I’m piping hot, now… I’m setting fire to the light.
I’m setting fire, sitting fire, I’m sitting by the fire,
I’m setting later, in the sun’s first last light.
Don’t mind me, love; I’ve left-off from mourning,
You can find me here later; you’re always hunting;
You can find me later; I’ll hide in a shapeless night
That hides nothing: I’ll wear darkness but I’ll burn
Twice as bright by night as I flame by day, because
Darkness quails and hushes nothing;
Darkness swells the quiet sounds.
This sad song is made all from the easy notes;
Before dawn I’m just another blackbird,
Tuning-up and training strings. Trembling throats
Ripple with sound: sing quickly at light’s word!
Jars of flaming color break our plumage overhead,
And with my colors back, our voices go their ways;
Some sing about heartlands or lost loves, the dead,
Some sing of broken hearts, some cry for yesterdays.
But don’t mind, don’t find me, good morning,
I’m only warning about my edges,
I have to eat, I have to feed;
I want to love you, but I need
To eat through the holes of the dark sky’s light;
With the sun gone, the stars are stabbing at the night,
Stabbing in the night, their knives gleaming with my life.
[ Fiction can, naturally, skimp on accompaniment, and while Sarah would not cheat, he who is her present secretary is not above such shortcuts ] 😉