A Frame of Mother of Pearl

North Carolina, by the sea

The idea of women waiting beside the sea is a haunting one, particularly when we look at 19th century housekeeping manuals and the litany of tasks with which those women busied themselves.

The art for Issue 21 of Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show has appeared on the excellent blog Sideshow Freaks of its most excellent editor, Edmund R. Schubert. The story’s title was originally Starling’s Wing – for what reason I’m not sure other than it was a phrase that occurred to me and which I liked for its 19th century flavor. I managed to work the title into the story in a somewhat laborious and contrived fashion with this passage towards the end:

When they reached the glade, they saw the twins playing beside the creek, catching minnows in the shallows. Madeleine sat on the bank on a quilt she had spread out. Hattie noticed with annoyance that it was one of her best, the one that usually sat atop her own bed, a pattern she’d invented herself called Starling’s Wing.

This story was rewritten several times in the course of the back and forth between me and Edmund, changing a) from a happy story to a sad one and b) changing villains. At one point Edmund confessed that his head was about to explode, but we straightened it all out.

The story started with a flourish of language and imagery that looks to Joyce Carol Oates’ The Bellefleur Mysteries.

On her fifteenth birthday, Hattie Fender contracted a fever that led to the loss of her hair, which until that point had been long and glossy and black as licorice. Her mother nursed her through the illness, then died herself of a fish aspic that had gone off.

Upon recovery, Hattie mourned her mother and resorted to patent hair restoratives, full of poisonous sugar of lead, sulphur, and copperas. The medicines forced a relapse, driving her back to fevered bed rest for three months more.

At seventeen and a half, she had become bantam egg bald and just as hard-shelled. At twenty-two, she daily polished her scalp with bay rum and bergamot oil, which left a perfumed trail behind her, so you could track her by smell up the stairs and out along the walk that watched the gun-metal waves lick at the clouds above the sea.

On her twenty-fifth birthday, two days after her true love’s disappearance, Hattie had her scalp tattooed with the twelve celestial houses. They marked off her head in long pie-shaped wedges, Scorpio over her left ear and Taurus over the right. When she stood still, no matter the location, she chose to stand in alignment with the sky, so the spidery black demarcations reflected the patterns of the stars.

Edmund, rightly so, made me move this from the place I had front-loaded it in to a place further in down the line in the story. He also made me chose a better title, which was fine, but more difficult that I had thought it would be. No title sprang out at me as perfect, alas, and so I went with using one of the significant objects, the mother of pearl frame around Jemmy’s picture.

I’ll be talking more about the process behind the story (and where the name Hattie Fender came from!) in an upcoming entry for Sideshow Freaks.

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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