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Chapter Two of Mermaid Steel

Back on December 3, 2011, I posted the first chapter of a novel I was just starting called Mermaid Steel. I recently started a Facebook fan page for the book, and posted an article here about the Story Behind the Story of the book. Please check out the fan page. The link is in the right side navigation bar. I have decied to share my progress on this book and to keep myself under pressure to keep working on it, by posting chapters in serial. So go back and read Chapter One. Here is Chapter Two.

Chapter Two

“We already know about pounding metal to shape it.”

Chielle could tell her older brother Thymon was about to dismiss her, in that casual manner older siblings learn from years of pestering. He even feigned disinterest by smoothing his gill flanges against his neck.

She forced the air through her sinuses to add urgency to her underwater song. She didn’t care if the townspeople all around them overheard. “Oh no, do not turn away from me. I’m telling you he showed me a secret, a technique you do not know. Look at this ring.”

He glanced around to see if anyone was listening. The shopkeepers and their customers on the busy avenue continued about their business without looking their way. He took the iron bracelet with that raised eyebrow half-smirk Chielle had faced too many times.

“I made that. By myself on my first try. In a matter of minutes.”

The disdainful eyebrow came down and he pursed his wide lips as he examined it with his wide-set glassy eyes. “All right, what’s the trick?”

She lit up at having gotten through to him. “You have to strike the metal many times, without stopping, all around where you want it to bend, to heat it up inside. The metal becomes softer for a moment as you hit it, so you can bend it at the same time.”

Thymon eyed the little dents all over the surface. “What about something thicker than this?”

“You’ll have to hit it harder, but the secret is to keep hitting it while pushing it where you want it to bend.”

Isn’t this going to make a tremendous noise? It’s going to deafen the Merrow doing the work, and scare off all the fish for miles around. What was the hammer made of? These dents you made are all the same size. Didn’t the hammer flatten out with all this pounding?”

“Well, no. It kept its shape the whole time.” She struggled to find an answer, lest she lose his hard-won attention. “Oh, it must have been hardened in the fire. He talked about how you can harden a finished piece by heating it up until it glows and then letting it cool down.”

“If you have a fire.”

“Can’t we make our hammers above the surface?”

He handed the ring back to her. “Maybe. Let me think about it.”

Disappointment sent a shiver down her spine. “There must be a way to use this technique.”

He frowned and cocked his head. “There are a lot details to work out. I don’t know if we can make this work on any practical scale. Then there’s the question of whether Rorra would want us doing this human work. Thank you for bringing this to me.”

She didn’t try to hide her emotions as she let her fins droop.

He glanced around again at the Merrow going about their business in their village. “And it’s really a good thing you brought this to me. Anybody else, and you would have been severely punished for consorting with a human.”

“I told you, he was going to drown.”

His disapproving eyebrow climbed back up. “Not our problem.”

“You would let a blacksmith drown, with all those skills we need so badly?”

“Did you know he was a blacksmith when he fell in?”

“Well…” she hesitated, but then decided the truth was better than lying. “Yes, I did.”

Thymon didn’t hide his surprise. “You were following him around, hoping for a chance to talk to him.”

“I’m not proud of it, but yes.”

“Are you sure you didn’t push him in?”

“Very funny.”

“I’ll bet he has no idea you were hunting him.”

“No. I needed to build his trust.”

“I have to say, little sister, I didn’t think you had it in you. At least you won’t have to keep up the rouse. He gave you his technique, and you gave it to me. So you have no need to go back.”

Chielle scanned his face, hoping to find some hesitation, some hint that he was not commanding her to stay away from Sten. She didn’t find it. “Right. I have no need,” she said before turning and swimming away.

****

Chielle sat on top of her family’s coral home, weaving sea grass fibers into a fine mat. The curved dome of the roof was her favorite spot for this kind of boring handwork, since it afforded her a view down the canyon over most of the village. No one else was up on their roofs, and she was used to that. The roofline of the cultivated hollow shapes of the homes had changed very little since she first came up here as a young girl. It took years to grow a house.

The constant slow downshore breeze brought with it the smells of folks in the upper town preparing supper. She opened her mouth and gills wide and let the smells fill her head. All the predictable comforts of home, as assuring as they were, only reminded her of how nothing ever changed, nothing ever got any better.

Off in the distance she spotted three swimmers coming into town. Something about how they were grouped together looked odd to her. She set her weaving down and swam up to get a better vantage. As they approached she saw it was her brother and two of his friends, one of whom was being held and helped along by the others, as if he were injured. They swam rapidly up the street and into the front of the house. Chielle swam down the back of the house and slid in a window. She caught up with them in the front common room, and coiled up in a back corner to watch.

The eldest of the three, Serool, was cradling his left hand and breathing hard, obviously in a lot of pain. Her brother Thymon swam quickly to the kitchen to get supplies, while the youngest, Kriish, was fussing over Serool, too nervous to be of any real use.

Chielle lifted the sunstone out of its wall sconce and set it down on the floor next to them so they could get a better look. Thymon came back with a couple of jars. When he peeled back the rag Serool’s hand was wrapped in, Kriish gasped, which did not help matters. The skin from the back of his hand all the way up his forearm was blistered and peeling. There wasn’t very much blood, but the flesh was mutilated. Chielle thought it looked cooked.

Thymon dipped his fingers in one of the jars and started to smear a waxy paste on the wound. “This is going to hurt, but we’ve got to seal it or it’s never going to heal.”

Chielle asked quietly, “Is that Mama’s ambergris?”

Thymon glanced over at her as if he had only just noticed she was in the room. “Yes. I’ll only use a little. It goes a long way.”

Serool winced at his touch. “What’s in the other jar?’

“Jellyfish nettles for the pain.”

Kriish asked, “Doesn’t that stuff hurt even more when you put it on?”

“Only at first,” Thymon assured. “Then it kills all the pain. It’s kind of extreme, but then, so is this burn.”

Chielle observed quietly, “The only thing hot enough to burn someone like that is the lava vent.”

“Yeah. So?” her brother said without looking up from his work.

“What were you guys doing messing around the lava vent?”

Kriish reached into his shoulder pouch, pulled out, and proudly held up an iron spearpoint as long as his hand. “Ain’t that a beauty?”

She recoiled in surprise, then frowned and snatched it from him.”Gimme that.” She held it close to the sunstone on the floor. “This was beaten while it was hot.” She flashed a glare at her brother, who avoided her look. “This is what you do with the technique I brought you? Make weapons? What are you going to do with weapons?”

Serool answered through teeth still clenched in pain. “Defend our fishing pools. The humans have been dragging their nets through Parker’s Meadow again, which the treaty says is ours alone. Thymon tried talking to the fishermen, and they threatened him with their steel weapons.”

“The guy pulled a gleaming knife on me as long as your arm,” her brother added.

Serool continued. “I told my dad, who asked Jeljing. Even the Shaman didn’t think there was much we can do.”

“It’s their law too,” Chielle tried.

“The humans don’t enforce the law on their own kind,” Thymon insisted “No, we have to defend ourselves and our waters.”

She drifted back, staring down at the viciously pointed tip in her hands. “There hasn’t been bloodshed with the humans since before we were born. You tried to make me feel guilty about using human skills. How is Rorra going to feel about us taking up arms? Rorra abides and provides. We’ve always found ways to keep the peace.”

“That’s right,” Thymon barked. “We, we have always been willing to compromise. We have always given them a little bit more to keep the peace. Now they grow greedy. They figure we’ll just keep on giving up more territory. They’ve taken everything the law allows them, and now they want more. Enough is enough.”

Serool nodded. “That piece took me less than an hour to make. Your trick about continuous pounding really works. And with the lava, that thing is harder than anything I’ve ever handled.”

“I drove it right through a coral head,” Kriish said proudly. “Didn’t even scratch the metal.”

“You guys are going to boil yourselves working with lava.”

“I just slipped,” Serool dismissed. “It was my own fault. It’s worth the risk. Besides, the more I make, the better I’ll get at it. I figure I can make a dozen of these a day once I get going.”

“A dozen a day? What, so you’re going to arm the whole town?”

“If we need to.”

She looked down at the spearpoint, shaking her head slowly. She dropped it and swam into the back of the house.

****

Jacio Bilboa wished he could remember where he left his hat. It had been cloudy that morning so he didn’t think he would need it as he left his mother’s house to come to work with Sten on the docks. Now, as he labored at unbolting the sail rigging on their customer’s sloop, the clouds dissipated and the sun bore down on him. The fourteen year old apprentice wished he had taken a little more time to look for his hat.

“Jacio! Heads up!” Sten yelled as he threw a towel down to him from up on the dock. “Wrap that around your head,”

“Thank you!” he yelled back up. That was probably the thing he liked most about working for Sten. The blacksmith was always looking out for him.

He bent over and started wrapping it around his head when he was interrupted by a cheery female voice calling out, “Hello there!”

He looked around and couldn’t place it.

“Hello up there! I’m down here.”

He stepped to the railing and there was a mermaid bobbing in the water. “Oh. Hello.”

“Hello. We haven’t met.” She was frowning, like she was upset, but forced a smile I’m Chielle. I’m a friend of Sten’s.”

“Oh.” Sten hadn’t mentioned anything about befriending a mermaid. “All right.”

“Are you a friend of Sten’s also?”

“I work for him.”

“Oh, that’s nice.” The forced smile gave way to the frown again. “Can you please tell him I’m here?”

“Uh, sure.” Jacio started to just yell up, but thought better of it. “Wait here.” He picked up the wrench he had been using and slipped it through his belt. No reason to leave such a valuable tool out where the mermaid could get it. As he climbed up the ladder he wondered when Sten had started talking to them, let alone befriending one. Or maybe she had only said she was a friend.

Sten was inside the shack stoking the hearth. “Boss, there’s a mermaid down by the boat asking for you. She says she’s a friend of yours, named She-oll or something.”

Sten brightened at her name. “Really? Did she say what she wants?”

“No. She just asked for you.”

He put the logs and tongs down and wiped the soot from his hands on his heavy leather apron. “Well, let’s find out.”

Jacio followed Sten out to the ladder, watching his boss carefully, trying to figure out what he thought of his visitor. Jacio had only been working for Sten two months, and they had never talked about the merfolk. As he followed Sten down the ladder to the landing, he couldn’t help but think a mermaid would only want to befriend a blacksmith to steal steel and tools.

“Chielle! How are you?” Sten greeted her as he hopped out onto the boat.

Jacio noted how Sten stretched out her name like he was trying to sound like a merman.

“Have you had any success with the bending?”

She shifted her big blue-green eyes around and wouldn’t make eye contact. “Well, yes. The technique works fine. Thank you again. The Merrow men already knew about the pounding.”

Jacio stayed back on the landing but watched and listened carefully. She was clearly hiding something. Why couldn’t Sten see that?

“They also already knew about using heat. You know the volcano down at the end of the peninsula? Well, it has a lava vent underwater. It is extremely dangerous, but in spite of that, some of our men have used it to smith metal.”

Sten shook his head and shrugged. “That’s great. You sound like this is a problem.”

She blinked and sighed and finally looked him straight in the eye. “Sten, they’re boiling their own flesh to get this done. They’ve started making weapons. Weapons they are going to use to defend our fishing pools from your fishermen.”

“Attacking humans doesn’t sound right for your people. Why the sudden change? Don’t they know how much trouble they are going to cause picking a fight, an armed conflict, with humans?”

“They aren’t starting the fight. My brother told a fishing crew to stay out of our waters and the fishermen threatened him with a knife.”

“Has there been any bloodshed yet?”

“Not that I know of. You know that will change if both sides bring weapons. Sten, can you talk to the fishermen? I tried to talk to my people but they won’t back down.”

“I doubt they would listen to me. I tried talking to them in the pub after you and I spoke two weeks ago, and they wouldn’t have any of it.”

“There must be something we can do to head this off.” She seemed genuinely upset.

“I’ll tell the town constable. Do you have a law officer in your village?”

She blinked and nodded. “Yes, and I will go to him as well. My brother will be furious with me. He’ll have to see this is for his own good. It’s for all of our good.”

“Go do that, and let’s meet back here tomorrow and talk again.”

“Thank you, Sten.” She smiled what Jacio was sure she thought was a sweet smile. He found it kind of frightening.

She dove away and Sten started for the ladder. Jacio swallowed hard and considered holding his tongue, but decided this was too important to let it pass. “Sten, did you teach her how to smith?”

Sten stepped up onto the wharf and turned to face him. “Yes, but apparently it’s something they already know how to do.”

“If that’s true, then why do they still steal our metal?”

Sten stopped and turned his dark brown eyes on Jacio with an intensity the boy had never seen in his boss. “First of all, they are not a race of thieves. They are actually quite happy with our cast offs. They have been for decades. Second, she just said the lava vent burns them. I can’t imagine using a lava flow to smith metal, the idea is insane. So they’re only doing it because they think they have no other choice. There is always another choice besides taking up arms. It’s what makes us civilized.”

“My mother says they’re not.”

Sten did a double take. “What, let me guess. She says they’re savages? Would a savage come warn us of a brewing fight, to try to keep the peace in the face of anger? I know what savage and uncivilized looks like. That’s not what we’ve got here.” He turned and climbed the ladder. “Now I need you to keep working on that rigging while I run into town. I’ve got to go find the constable.”

As he watched Sten climb, Jacio knew how he felt, but he did not know what to think.

****

Eleven committed, able-bodied Merrow with hardened spears should be plenty to make a stand against the four fishing boats that pulled into Parker’s Meadow. Thymon kept telling himself that. He had hoped for a lot more men at his side. This would have to do.

As the lead vessel turned into the bay, Thymon motioned for his men to surround it. They surfaced all around, spears raised at the ready. Thymon was pleased at how shocked the fishermen were. “These waters belong to us! You are not allowed to fish here! You must leave now!”

The two humans at the rail were too surprised to move. The rhythmic sound of the boat hulls sloshing in the gentle waves punctuated the tense silence. Then a very broad shouldered man with a full grey beard stepped up and yelled back. “How’re you gonna stop us? I ain’t afraid of those pig stickers! You don’t have the guts to harpoon me and my men!”

Serool, next to Thymon, caught his eye with a questioning raised eyebrow. Thymon gave him a nod. Despite his bandaged hand and arm, Serool hurled his spear on target, right passed the bearded man’s head. He flinched out of the way as it stuck in the wheel house wall with a loud crack.

“That’s your last warning!” Thymon yelled.

“Fuck off!” the man fired back. The two men on either side of him did not look so sure. As if to make himself clear, the man marched over to the net rigging and grandly flipped a lever that dropped the net over the side.

Thymon caught Serool’s eye. “Cut the net.”

Serool vanished below and Thymon continued to engage the man, who was becoming more and more irate. “Whatever happens, you will have brought it on yourself!”

“I don’t take lightly to being threatened, you filthy fin! The gloves are off! You lift a finger to stop my men and I will strike you down!”

One of the other fishermen pointed down and said something Thymon couldn’t hear. The bearded man looked down, then up at Thymon with a sneer. He stormed into the wheel house. A moment later he stepped out holding a long metal stick with a wooden handle at one end. He pointed it down into the net and a burst of smoke exploded out the end with a roar.

Now it was the Merrow who were shocked. They exchanged confused glances before diving under to see if Serool was all right. Thymon was relieved to see his friend swimming back up to meet him. “He barely missed me,” he sang underwater. “What was that thing?”

“I don’t know, but he’s not afraid to use it again.”

They were interrupted by the sound of another explosion up on the surface. One of the Merrow had thrown another spear which stuck out of the boat’s railing. A fisherman stood holding one of the weapons, a cloud of smoke hanging in front of him. The Merrow was thrashing about in the water, obviously wounded.

Thymon noticed the other three fishing boats were not slowing down. The sailors on those ships all looked fearfully at what was happening, and steered around the melee and back out to sea.

“Come back here, you cowards!” the bearded man bellowed at them. When they did not turn back, the man had angry words with his own crew. The other men started pulling up the net and raising the sails to leave. The bearded man shook his fist at Thymon. “We’ll be back! And with more guns!”

.

Categories: Mermaid Steel, Writing

Mermaid Steel – The Story Behind the Story

A running joke among writers is to ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” Harlan Ellison famously answered that he sent off to an idea factory in Schenectady, NY. I have no doubt you will get as many answers to this question as authors you ask. I can’t answer for anyone else, but I seem to be a collector of notions and a habitual puzzle solver. I do, in fact, love solving 3-d puzzles. I highly recommend Hanayama. The collecting certainly goes along with being a costumer packrat. I can see the reality TV show: Idea Hoarders. That would be me.

So, not surprisingly, Mermaid Steel is the product of years of subconsciously collecting ideas and patiently fitting the pieces together to make something new.

I have always thought Romeo and Juliet would be very well suited to a Pacific Island setting. Warring families, social taboos, questionable priests, beautiful young lovers, it’s a perfect fit. I imagine some theater company in Hawaii or New Zealand has already done it. Maybe someday I’ll be lucky enough to see it staged that way. In the meantime, this idea has been percolating in the back of my mind for years.

Many years ago when I was actively costuming for the fantasy/science fiction stage, I designed a set of huge, Las Vegas scale costumes of the Polynesian gods of the earth, sea and sky playing out their legendary tryst. Rangi, the god of the sky lies with mother Earth, named Papa, each night. Papa is wed to Tangaroa, the god of the sea. Each morning when the sun comes up, Papa cries at Rangi’s departure, which is where we get dew. One day Rangi takes too long getting out of bed and Tangaroa catches him and spears him in the leg. I envisioned this as playing well on a WorldCon stage, with gigantic sweeping wings and capes, a spear fight and lots of red glitter. Being a packrat costumer at heart, I still have the half- finished costumes in a box. In putting the vignette together, I read up on Polynesian myths, and I liked what I read.

Fast forward 30 years, my costuming is limited to dressing up my kids, and I’m writing novels. In addition to all the medical research I did in writing Daughter Cell, I also read up on a religion called Cheondogyo, which is the Korean Heavenly Way. It teaches that a piece of God lives in all of us, and that our higher purpose if life is to live up that divine heritage. Not to spoil anything, but someone in the story abuses this notion and takes the faith to mean that pursuing selfish improvement is divinely sanctioned.

Back when I was researching The Chosen, among the many topics I read up on was the Nazi myth of the secret order of Thule, and the Atlantean Supermen, from whom the Aryans were supposed to have descended.

Throw into this mix the seemingly endless debate certain of my history buff friends seem locked in over Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel.

Throw this all into the pot, set on simmer and stir occasionally. Years later: Idea Gumbo.

Mermaid Steel is the story of two villages, one human and one mermaid, that both live off the fish in a bountiful bay in the tropics. The humans have advanced to where they are making fine enough steel to start building sophisticated machines, including guns. So think of the Goa coast of India around 1700. The humans are foreigners from a colder climate who have been here for about 100 years, long enough ago that they did not have good steel when they arrived. The mermaids have been here all along.

The humans believe they are all descended from a perfect man, named Atlan, who was the sole survivor of an ancient time of cataclysm, who went on to be the seminal source of all humans on earth – sort of a Robert Heinlein version of Abraham. Atlan represented the best a human can be, so believers feel their higher calling is to fulfill their Atlantean heritage and be as brave and as smart and as strong as they can be. Needless to say, this ideal is often corrupted, like all ideals, to support selfishness.

The mermaids, who call themselves Merrow, believe in a benevolent goddess Rorra, who is the sea itself. They believe Rorra takes care of them, even if it takes a seemingly long time for things to work out. They therefore do not have a concept of personal property. Their lives are built around community. They don’t understand the concept of buying something from someone. You do what needs to be done, and a gift is a gift.

A hundred years ago, when the humans built their village, the humans and the Merrow fought over the bay, and they reached a treaty. The treaty delineates what fishing grounds are for human use and which are not. It also prohibits commerce between the two races. This arrangement kept the Merrow culture intact and everyone fed for several generations.

At the time of this book, that peace is breaking down. The human village has grown and the fishermen expand their fishing grounds whenever they can get away with it. The problem is, the Merrow would rather keep the peace than fight over grounds they do not really believe belong to them anyway.

This has historical precedence in the Westernization of the Pacific islands. First it was missionaries, and then settlers who came and took land. The islanders were not prepared to negotiate, since they did not have a sense of personal ownership. They gave up more and more land until they found themselves displaced.

The Merrow are also at a distinct disadvantage because the humans have developed technologies the Merrow cannot duplicate. They can’t forge metal underwater, so they scavenge castoff metal fixtures. The humans have grown suspicious of this. By the time this book starts, the humans have all but written off the Merrow as a race of thieves. The fact they can disappear and reappear suddenly from beneath the waves only adds to the suspicions and accusations.

So the culture clash the treaty was supposed to prevent has boiled up to the humans thinking the Merrow are thieves and the Merrow thinking the humans are greedy land grabbers.

In the midst of this tension, Chielle, our young Merrow heroine, befriends Sten, the village blacksmith. Chielle is a rule breaker in her peoples’ eyes, and Sten has his own personal history of dealing with justice issues. So they are the right people to try to bridge the gap. Clearly they have a lot going against them.

The cultural differences go even deeper. The humans play fast paced, jig music and dance accordingly, with great emphasis on their feet. The Merrow play rhythmic percussion and song, which works fine underwater, akin to Indian Bolly music, with dancing that sways and wiggles, focused on their tails. As Chielle and Sten’s relationship grows, this difference is one more obstacle for them to overcome.

Their biggest difference, of course is how they see the world. Sten’s Atlantean ideal is all about doing good with your own two hands. Chielle’s faith in Rorra is all about trusting the divine to provide. They bridge that gap by learning from each other.

So I hope you can see how the various influences I listed at the start have ended up in this story. I am happy to report that, as much fun as it was fitting the pieces together to create the story, I am having even more fun actually writing it. My hope, of course, is at the end of the path, you will enjoy reading it even more.

Categories: Mermaid Steel, Writing

Working from home – a tough lesson learned

July 6, 2013 4 comments

There was a time in my Bohemian past when I would have said sanity is overrated. As someone who tends to take on too much, I have learned the hard way that sanity does matter. I had another “Oh no, not another learning experience” recently, and I am here to share my cautionary tale in hopes that it will save someone the painful lesson.

I quit my dream job. After networking and interviewing and waiting for six months, I landed a job technical writing from home. What could be better? Writing for The Man by day and writing for me at night. No commute. Flexible hours as long as the work got done. Old coworkers congratulated me on achieving what they all dreamed of.

Three months in I started wondering why I felt like I could never get anything done. Four months in I started wondering why I couldn’t sleep. I kept trying to make it work. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t find a rhythm at what was supposed to be a great arrangement? Surely I could afford a few hours here and there to be the stay-at-home dad. But that’s just it. I ran out of hours. At five months I realized that whenever I was working the job, I felt remiss for not taking care of something pressing around the house. And whenever I was doing something for the house, I felt like I should be working on work. My creativity disappeared and I got no writing done for myself. I should also mention, it did not help that the day job had a long learning curve and the guy who used my output never liked anything I wrote. It wasn’t that I could not get anything done. I actually got a lot done. It’s that I could never get any satisfaction from anything I was doing, since I was always distracted by the other things I needed to get back to.

I thought my failure was a lack of discipline. Then I started talking to other folks who had walked the same path. Living in the Bay Area, I know quite a few tech writers. Some of them had tried the work-from-home option and they told the same story. I met a fellow science fiction writer at a book signing. He had tried to do the stay-at-home dad gig while functioning as the CFO for his company. He said he was surprised how much better life got once he got back to commuting to the office. I met a stock broker at a picnic who told the same story. Suddenly I didn’t feel like such a failure for not being able to juggle what I had taken on. Maybe I had taken on too much.

While I was pondering all of this, my old employer, the bank that had let me go in a re-organization two years ago, called me to ask me back. Same old commute, same kind of work (which I always enjoyed), different department with people I knew and respected from before, and more money. More than anything, though, it was an opportunity to leave work at work, and to do just home stuff at home.

So I took it. I have been on the new job at the old bank for a week now. They love me. I love being there. Indeed I lose a couple of hours a day to the commute. On the other hand, I’m sleeping again. I enjoy being with my family more. And I am happy to report, I am writing again.

So the lesson appears to be, if you are going to be a stay-at-home parent, do not try to squeeze that in as a part time side line activity while holding down a full time job. You can only expect job satisfaction from any job that you can devote your full attention to while you are doing it, whether it is a day job, parenting, or a part time job creative job. You owe it to yourself to keep them separate.

Categories: Parenting, Writing
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