Community Novel Project
July 27, 2016
I’ve been participating in the library’s Community Novel Project for two years, as long as I’ve been working at the library. While I was only a patron, I remember seeing/hearing wisps of news about this program, but never took the initiative to join. Once I was tasked with promoting the project, and once I realized that two of my favorite librarians, Lissa Staley and Miranda Ericsson, were the project leaders, my interest was finally piqued enough to pull me in.
The thing I’ve found really great about it is the accountability. There are very real deadlines, and they require some very real writing. The accountability and support is so good, in fact, that I’m considering joining in on some of the library’s NaNoWriMo activities this year. I’m fed up with talking about writing a novel. Maybe now’s the time to actually do it.
The first year, I wrote two chapters in an exquisite corpse-style novel that involved time travel and other science-fiction-y stuff. Not exactly my bag (writing-wise; I do love reading sci-fi and dystopian stuff). But the writing came surprisingly easily, and I actually enjoyed myself. This year, the project was a short story collection of speculative fiction. I didn’t totally get what speculative fiction was when I started, but I dove in anyway. I used a theme/setting that appears in some of my previous poems and that I can’t really shake loose as a trope in my writing: The Topeka State Hospital. Easy pick for me, since the story/novel is always set in Topeka, and this is one of the most evocative places for me creatively. With guidance from the editing process that’s build into the CNP, I was able to revise to align the content more accurately with speculative fiction conventions. Here’s what I got from this year’s CNP.
I was done. I told my husband I didn’t love him anymore. I sent that spear screaming straight through the kitchen ceiling into his heart. Our marriage splashed the tiles, making a mess I was too weary to clean. I took off my apron and left out the back door, wobbling like a marionette down tricky stairs.
I went into the garden, what was left of the garden from last fall. The merciless birds ate the berries. I’d tied old discs to stakes to ward them off. It was a fruitless chore. In spring’s wane light, the discs turned and strobed gold and blue. I held one up like a mirror but my face gave no indication. If there had been a mountain anywhere in sight, I would’ve climbed it then and there. I would’ve climbed it to the top and looked around, wiser for the view. Seeing the bigger picture.
But this was caraway Kansas in a small, kept neighborhood with rain still hugging the curbs from last night’s storm, leaves traveling the street’s moat to the sewers. Deep inside the sewers, foxes made dens on old brick ledges, waiting for the watery tumult to subside. The only thing left up in the sky was a smear and a waft of ozone.
Down at the end of the block was the empty Topeka State Hospital, its patina peaks and turrets rising over the sleepy neighborhood like a child’s dream of the old world, of a castle, of a world inside of doors with intricate carpets and relationships. I walked to it, my legs mobilized as if pulled by string.
I knew better than a child. This thing was a psychologist’s fantasy taken shape in handsome blonde brick and sheen of stone, but inside was a horror of porcelain, pain, and bodies still in shock, wandering these decades after death. How romantic. My husband and I – before he was a husband and I his wife – crept in one night, drunk on love, and embraced on the floor of the broken ballroom. The dust was thick with lives. It furrowed into our pores, sifted on tongues that we slid in each other’s mouths, high on this, reckless on this.
I found it utterly unfamiliar; a total stranger. The building squatted among the oaks, smug and stupid. Its finery an insult to its history. A liar, a boaster, a pretty facade concealing a black, black soul.
I stood in front of its face, studying and struggling to decipher what I ever saw in those shattered panes, peeling balustrade, stains, cracks, and sediment. Its porch arms flew open, asking for a crushing embrace.
They say it was a wrecking ball that did the final blow. No. It was me. I shook the cobwebs off my heart and the sluggish beat went back to its original fervor. I was a wreck of anger. I poured all the hurt and stones into a vortex, casting off that heavy debris. They say that people came from all points once the waves of dust announced its fall. It was me. Strings pulled my limbs. Wind pulled my fists into hammers made of air and magnets. That’s how the asylum fell.
It was inside me all along, the tornado he once tried to quell. Here and there across the city floats down a tile. A shard. The past in a bit of brick. And a layer of dust the foxes notice, pricking their snouts at the scent.
When I went missing, no one thought to look in the tunnels, the only remaining corridors of the buildings now gone. They raked the river and searched the skinny patches of wood behind the mini malls and fast food joints. They rustled the homeless from their pockets beneath the viaduct. They fingered my husband but found nothing incriminating. He was capable of harm but not culpable for this. Not in the eyes of the police.
I saw the lid to the tunnel cocked off, leaving a hole for my body to slip through and a hold for lowering myself into it. No one saw me go down or heard me call hoarsely for help when I lost my way under the flat plane where the asylum used to be. Someone must have slid the lid back over the opening.
I saw only black but knew the former inmates roamed here too like restless minotaur, huffing breath against my neck as they passed on some mission. It wasn’t until I died eons later, slumped invisible against the flaking concrete wall, that I finally found my way free.
The websites call me the Wailing Woman. They think I was mad and died at the asylum. I was mad, that much is true. In some ways, I still am. The former inmates regard me with distrust and keep their distance. But I didn’t die at the asylum. Most of me died at the house down the street. The last of me, in a tunnel underground.