Monday, August 3, 2009

Writing About Loss

Three years ago, on August 3rd, 2006, one month to the day before our 6th wedding anniversary, my wife Ellen died. It was the end of her ten month battle with cancer, and the beginning of my battle with loss. This is not the right forum to relate what she went through, nor what I experienced after her death. This is a blog about writing, so I will contain myself to that subject.

My writing touches on many subjects, some I hardly understand and others I know well. When I write scenes about fighting, armor, weapons, horses, heraldry, or any of a myriad of other subjects I must do research. Hours, days, sometimes weeks or even months, searching for tidbits of information that are accurate and which make a scene feel real to me.

In my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men, there is a scene I planned out years before Ellen and I married. In it, the character of Artemis Arrowsmith does something because of her sense of loss over the long ago death of her lover, Marcus. This action results in Artemis expressing her feelings over the death of Marcus. It is an important moment not just because of what it reveals about her, but because of what it later implies about another major character. Her action and what she says because of it are crucial elements to the overall plot of Gods Among Men.

As I said, I planned this scene long before Ellen and I married, over a decade before she would be diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t actually write the scene, however, until after Ellen died.

When I did finally write this scene I did not need any research to know in a personal way what Artemis was feeling. Artemis is not me, and often I have trouble with her scenes, but in this case I knew exactly what she would say and do. I wrote the first draft very quickly, and have edited it only a little since then.
Without, further explanation, I present below an extended excerpt from that scene. I don’t know if it is any good or not, but it certainly feels real to me.


Looking at the satchel, Artemis thought, I always assumed The Satchel of Eternity was just a legend. One of Demiurge’s greatest creations. A simple looking bag that can store or draw forth anything wanted or needed. Anything that can be imagined.

“I’m ready to begin,” Damon announced as he opened his eyes. “Keep the flap open. I’ll need to dispose of the staff once I’m done with it.”

Anything wanted.

“Whatever you do, don’t let go of the satchel. Not for an instant.”

Anything that can be imagined.

“Did you hear me, Artemis?”

Nodding, she opened the satchel’s flap and reached toward the opening.

“No,” Damon shouted and started towards her, reaching for her hand, but he was too late.

Reaching into the Satchel of Eternity, Artemis poured all the love she had ever felt for Marcus into a single wish that he was alive and with her. An imagined life with him swam in her head; dreams of growing old together, visions of children, and idyllic images of the family she had never known but always wanted. She remembered Marcus holding her tight, kissing her, touching her face, gazing into her eyes. The longing she’d felt for him every day since he died was replaced with the hope that he could be returned to her, that they could still have a lifetime together.

Inside the satchel she felt something small, hard, oddly shaped, and cool to the touch. She closed her fingers on the item and pulled it forth. It was a small, heart-shaped, decorative box made of porcelain and trimmed with gold; its feet and hinges also gold. The lid had a gentle curve and was inlaid with tinted mother of pearl shaped to resemble a red rose. Artemis’s fingers brushed against something cold and metallic sticking out from the bottom of the box. She flipped it over to discover a windup key.

It’s a music box. Why would I pull out a music box? Glancing up, she saw Damon standing a few feet from her, frozen, his arm still outstretched from his attempt to stop her. His face was ashen, and his mouth hung open. In a hoarse whisper he cried, “Sweet Lady! What have you done?”

“I don’t understand.”

“What did you think you were doing?” Damon shouted. “Why in the name of all that’s holy did you do that?”

It was clear to Artemis that she had done something terrible, but what escaped her understanding. Embarrassed by her impulsive act, at allowing her long buried emotions to overwhelm her, she said in a low whisper, “I remembered the legends. About how you can pull anything you want or can imagine from the satchel.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” Damon roared.

“Well you never explained how it worked,” she snapped back.

“You told me you weren’t interested!”

“So now it’s my fault?”

“Yes,” Damon snarled through clenched teeth. “It is your fault. What were you trying to pull out of the satchel?”

“I’d rather not say,” Artemis replied in a tight murmur. Looking away, she took a sharp breath in through her nose then snorted it back out again.

“Artemis,” Damon held his hands together like he was praying and touched his fingertips to his chin. After taking a deep breath he said in a calmer voice. “You need to understand how important this is. There is very little you could have pulled from the satchel that would be a problem. Of that very short list, there is nothing that poses a greater risk for disaster than the one item you managed to retrieve. It shouldn’t have been possible for you to find that music box. Now that you have found it we have to put it back into the satchel in a precise way. There is no room for error. I must know what you were trying to do.”

For several seconds Artemis said nothing. Gazing down and away from Damon, she closed her eyes and considered not answering, or even lying. Instead she mumbled, “I was trying to get Marcus back.”


“I thought if the satchel could produce anything I wanted,” she admitted in a firmer voice. “Anything I could imagine, it might be able to return Marcus to me.” She opened her eyes, but still refused to look at Damon.

Rubbing his forehead, Damon paced back and forth in a small area. “Well, that at least makes some sense,” he muttered and tapped his thumb against his forefinger over and over.

“I know it was foolish.”

“Yes it was.” He stopped pacing and glared at her. “What you wanted, what you tried to do, is impossible.”

“I know.” Artemis uttered in a husky voice. “I knew it when I reached into the satchel. But I couldn’t help but try.” The muscles in Damon’s jaw quivered as he shook his head back and forth. Stepping toward him, Artemis looked up and explained with rapid words, “When Marcus died it was like half my soul was ripped from me. Parts of who I use to be was gone, just…gone.” Damon held her gaze and said nothing as she continued. “Since then, when I’m busy or distracted I can avoid thinking about him, about what happened and all I lost when he died. But as soon as I’m quiet, the moment I have time to think, the first thought that crosses my mind is ‘I wish Marcus was here.’ And then the pain returns.”

The muscles in Damon’s jaw no longer quivered, and his gaze softened. Before he could speak Artemis held a fist against her chest and said through gritted teeth, “For months after he died I felt like there was a dagger stuck in my heart. Now it’s just an ache. Sometimes sharp, sometimes dull, but always there.” She opened her hand, but left it against her chest. “When you hurt like that you find hope in the irrational, you pray for a miracle. I’ve prayed to the Lady countless times and thrown more coins into wishing wells than I can remember. Once a child told me that if you make a wish at midnight it will be fulfilled. Everyday for months I counted the minutes until that hour just so I could whisper ‘I wish Marcus was here’ on the preposterous chance it might work.”

Something was in Damon’s eyes Artemis had never seen there before: sympathy, and kindness. Dropping her hand to her side, she looked away and in a low voice added, “I stopped doing things like that a long time ago. Then you handed me the Satchel of Eternity and I realized there was a ridiculous, impossible, absurd chance that this time my wish might come true. That I might have found a way to reclaim the missing half of my soul. How could I not try?”

“I’m sorry, Artemis,” Damon said in a subdued voice. “I wish there was something I could do or say to take all that away from you, to lift that burden from your shoulders.”

Something about his simple statement of emotional support touched Artemis. It did not ease her pain nor remove her desire for Marcus, but it did stir primordial emotions she had kept buried so long she had forgotten they existed. For the first time since Marcus had died she did not feel divorced from the rest of humanity. Someone somewhere cared that she was hurting; cared about what she had endured, and wanted to help her without expecting anything in return. She was surprised that such a simple statement could so move her. Then she realized, No one has said that to me before. Not after her parents died, nor after Marcus died. Others had expressed their affection for her; Kern, Beatrice, their children. But none had said they would take her suffering away if it was in their power. Its just words, Artemis thought. But sometimes words of sympathy are all you want or need.

1 comment:

  1. That was well done. Well expressed and thoughtful.