Sundrop Sonata: First Chapter

IZZY

A chill shot down my spine the instant our eyes met. Nola Pack looked ten years older than she had a week ago when we met in town. She stood in her open doorway, clenching its frame. Her red eyes sought mine as a breeze teased her disheveled hair. The ranch wife I remembered from previous meetings would never have appeared with even one stray hair on her immaculate swept-up bun.

I smiled and greeted her, but her grave face stole the sunshine from the bright spring morning. I no longer heard songbirds sing in the nearby flowering orchard as I searched for clues to her distress.

Nola didn’t return my smile, nor did she speak. Her bloodshot eyes narrowed as she studied my face. She stepped aside, still clutching the ranch house door with a grip that raised veins on the back of her hand. I stepped into the picturesque entryway, put my tool case down, and stooped to remove my shoes.

“No. It’s fine. Come in,” she said.

“You don’t want me to remove my shoes?”

“Not today, Mrs. Woods. Come in.”

“If you’re sure,” I said, wiping my shoes on the entry mat before I stepped onto her white carpet. “And please call me Izzy.”

Awash with sunshine, the music room issued a warm invitation. A sofa and two chairs faced the walnut grand piano across the room, its lid open on full stick. A violin leaned against a matching walnut music stand that filled the piano’s graceful curve.

“What an improvement over the old upright,” I said. “When did it arrive?”

“About ten days ago.”

“Anything I need to know before I begin? Problems? Concerns?”

Her brow narrowed. Still unsmiling, she shook her head and looked over my shoulder to the window beyond the piano. I set my tool case against the wall and tucked a stray curl into the hair clip on the back of my head. “I’ll get started then,” I said over my shoulder.

“Wait, please,” Nola said. “I need your help.” She closed her eyes. Her voice almost a whisper, I strained to understand her words.

“You don’t want me to tune your piano?” I asked.

“No. Not now.”

“A few minutes then? Or did you mean not today?”

“Not today.” Her voice carried unmistakable urgency. “Please. Come with me.” She turned and walked into the hallway beyond the living room.

Another chill raced through my body. I stood rooted to the white carpet. Nola turned and looked at me from the other end of the hall. With a frantic wave she beckoned me to follow.

I walked from the music room, past four closed doors. Two doors displayed a child’s colorful paintings. I knew there were children in the house, or at least a child. During an earlier call a girl had peeked at me for a moment before Nola scolded her. I had never been invited beyond the music room though, until today.

The hallway opened into a glassed-in dining room aflame with spring sunshine. Nola led me outside to a redwood deck extending over a pond, water slapping the rocks beneath us. In the far corner of the deck, a slender girl slumped on a lounge, her arms wrapped around her chest. She stared at the blue water, humming in a split voice that sounded as if she sang in two pitches at once.

I tilted my head toward Nola and narrowed my eyes.

Nola met my puzzled gaze. “She’s talking to herself. She does it when she’s under stress.” Her voice was devoid of any emotion, fear still in the undercurrents.

Nola brushed aside a tree branch bursting with fragrant blossoms and knelt at the girl’s knees. In a soft voice she said, “Laura, this is Isabel Woods, the lady I told you about. She’s our piano tuner.”

The girl didn’t move. If anything, she hugged herself a little tighter.

“Look at me, sweetheart,” Nola said.

The girl turned to her mother, but her gaze shot beyond Nola toward me. Her eyes didn’t appear to focus. I offered a tiny smile, but Laura didn’t respond.

LAURA

Laura Pack squeezed herself, as if tightening her grip on her own shoulders could wring the stench from her mind. All morning the awful smell had overwhelmed her. The pungent odor of putrid diapers drove her mad. Baby poop. Hour after hour, the reek of excrement filled her mind. She couldn’t sleep. She even tasted the stuff. She swallowed, desperate to stop the bile rising in her throat.

Why this happened, she didn’t know. Every time she faced her fears, every time her world went wrong, this same awful odor permeated her nostrils and filled her brain. Mama didn’t believe her. She would shake her head and say she made it all up, that there was no rotten smell because Mama couldn’t smell it.

But after that awful phone call, Laura sure could.

And it grew stronger and stronger until it filled her mind. Mama had decided to send her away. So she’d be safe, Mama said. She didn’t think it would make her safe. She didn’t think she’d ever be safe without Mama.

Laura heard her mother call her name. It sounded so far away. She turned her head, dazed. The awful smell – why wouldn’t it stop?

I can’t see you, Mama. I can’t see you. Don’t look at me. I don’t want to see you. Can’t see you. Can’t see you. Can’t see. Why do I have to go? Why? Why? Why? Don’t want to go. Won’t go. I won’t. I won’t see you, Mama. Don’t look at me. No. No. Baby poop. No.

No – wait. Look at me. I want to see you. Look at me. I see you. I see you, Mama. I’m scared. I’m so scared. It smells so bad. I hear you. I hear your voice. You say I’ll be safe. I’ll be safer. Why? Why? Why? You come too. Be safe. Be safe, Mama. Be safer. Look at me. I can see you. I see you. I don’t want to go. Don’t want to.

Laura’s gaze focused on the piano tuner. The strange woman’s frizzy gray curls struggled to escape from the loose clasp on her head. Laura found no comfort in this stranger. Not even when the woman smiled.

I don’t know that lady. Who is she? I’m scared. Scared, Mama. I see you. I see you, Mama. I see her. She’s looking at me. She’s smiling. I see her. Okay. If you want me to go, I’ll go. I see her. She smiles. She’s kind. She’s kind of – not you!

Don’t want to go. Don’t want to, Mama. Don’t want to. Don’t want to. Don’t want to leave you. Baby poop, Mama. It’s baby poop. You come too. Be safe. Safer, Mama. Come too. Come with me. I see you, mama. I see you – I see you – I see you. I love you, Mama.

Nola clasped her daughter’s hands in her own. She pulled the girl to a stand and pressed Laura’s hands together over her heart. Their eyes met.

 IZZY

After a few silent seconds, Nola nodded once. She turned to me.

In a shaking voice she said, “I don’t know how to ask you this. We need your help. Could you – please – would you take Laura for a while? We’re desperate.”

Oh, my God. I don’t believe this. I coughed, choking on my response.

Laura pulled away from her mother.

“She could be in danger and I need time to sort things out,” Nola said.

I glanced from mother to daughter. The girl’s shoulders shook as she sobbed, her head buried in her hands.

What was I to do? I couldn’t take a strange child with me, drive out the driveway, head toward – head where? My appointments filled the day’s schedule. This would never work. What in the world was happening here?

But, I’d never been one to turn down a plea for help. What could I do?

“Please.” Nola’s whisper screamed in my ears.

I shook my head. “I need to think.”

“We don’t have time.”

“Are there no family members? Grandparents? Aunts or uncles?” I asked.

“My family lives in New York. They’re too far away. I need help now.”

“What about neighbors or friends?”

“I don’t know anyone around here. Except you. ”

That I could believe. The Pack family was a mystery to their neighbors. Hints and stray comments dropped when I tuned pianos a couple miles up the road confirmed nobody knew these people. They had no local friends. Just the piano tuner.

Incredible.

“Ranch hands?” I said. “You must have hired help.”

“I don’t trust them.”

“Is that why you think Laura’s in danger?”

“Please. There isn’t time to explain.”

I scratched my head through the mess of curls. Frizzy Izzy. I was living up to my childhood nickname, the hair an outward manifestation of my inner turmoil. “Have you called the sheriff?” I said.

“No. I can’t call the police.”

“Maybe you should.”

“Please. I can’t involve them.”

“This is crazy,” I said. “I can tell you’re desperate. But you haven’t told me why. You want me to pack up your daughter, the girl you’ve never even introduced to me on prior visits – load her up and take her away. But why? ”

“It’s an emergency. I need Laura to leave for a while.”

“I kind of want to leave too. In fact, you’re making me want to race from here as fast as I can go. But I don’t know why.”

“Just take Laura with you. Please.”

She had me. Could Nola read people enough to guess I’d find it impossible to refuse? My passion to help others usually served me well. I was, after all, in a service profession, traveling all over the countryside to tune pianos for people. Service with a smile, was the homily I always told myself. Make harmony from discord. And I loved the work. I loved the people. I found pianos fascinating, each one a variation on an ingenious theme.

This, however, was a first. This was different. Not a discordant piano today. This time, I was being pulled into a desperate situation.

Nola, should I tune your life?

A knot of anxiety hardened in my stomach. I didn’t know how to refuse. “For how long? How long is a while?” I asked.

“Might be only an hour or two. Perhaps a couple of days. I’ll call you when the crisis is over. Don’t call me.”

Chills raced through my body. “Why not? What if something happens?” I said. “What if I need to get in touch?”

“I’ll contact you as soon as I can. Just don’t call me.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Take the girl. No police. Don’t call Nola.

Laura wilted into the deck lounge and wailed.

In a soft voice, Nola said, “Izzy, believe me, if there was any other way, we would never put you in this position. The situation blew up on me this morning. You’re the miracle we need right now.”

“Please tell me why you’re so afraid,” I said.

She shook her head. “There’s no time. You need to go now.”

I touched the girl’s trembling shoulder with my fingertips. “Laura, are you okay with this? Will you come with me until your mother calls?”

Still sobbing, Laura ventured a tiny nod and turned to her mother. They grabbed each other in a desperate embrace.

Nola gently pushed the girl away. Taking her hand, she said, “Let’s go.”

She pulled Laura through the open doorway and gathered a few bags from the dining table. We dashed down the hall and into the music room, the bags in Nola’s arms brushing Laura’s artwork as she ran. I collected my tool case and hurried out to the waiting Blazer.

After I tossed my tools on the back seat, Nola handed me a briefcase. “Don’t lose this,” she said. “These things can’t be replaced.”

What does she mean? Another wrinkle.

I scrutinized her for a moment before I set the briefcase behind the driver’s seat.

Nola deposited Laura’s bags on the back seat and tucked her daughter into the passenger seat. She leaned inside and kissed the child.

“God be with you, Laura. I’ll see you soon.” A tear dropped into the girl’s stringy blond tresses.

Nola wiped another tear from her cheek and glanced at me. “Now quickly – go!”

I turned the Blazer onto the long gravel drive and spun the wheels as we left.

Accelerando, Isabel. Step on it.

We jiggled across the pasture lane. Laura shrank against the opposite door and wailed. Her thin voice vacillated with bumps in the road. At the end of the long driveway, we rumbled across the cattle guard and through stone pillars. The remotely controlled gate surged to life as soon as we cleared it.

“Your mom must be listening,” I said.

Laura’s strange two-tone whine rose a notch in volume.

I braked enough to navigate the turn onto the deserted county road. Heading south, I floored the accelerator. Less than two miles later, we met a two-ton flatbed pickup. It raced toward us, engine roaring.

“That guy’s in a hurry,” I said.

Laura gasped. Mouth open, eyes wide, she clung to the door, her gaze riveted on the truck. She ducked, hiding her eyes behind her long hair.

“Laura?”
The truck aimed straight for us. I swung the steering wheel right and braked hard. The farm truck thundered by as my Blazer crept along the shoulder. “Dang, take your half out of the middle,” I said.

Laura dissolved into hysterical sobs.

I pushed our speed again. We sailed along the road, sunlight streaming through the windshield. The bright morning mocked the grim mood inside our cab. Tears streamed across Laura’s cheeks. She reached up with her right arm and wiped her face with her sweatshirt sleeve. I reached over and squeezed her rigid hand.

“That was a close one, wasn’t it? You recognized the truck. Did you know the driver?”

Laura nodded. Her chest heaved. She worked her jaw, as if trying to speak, but her words didn’t form through her wail. She screwed up her face, knotted her hands into fists and managed to blurt in her strange split-tone voice, “My dad.”

“Your dad?”

She nodded and shrieked heart-wrenching sobs.

Her dad?

Was he the source of Nola’s panic this morning? Were her urgency and desperation because her angry husband headed home? Why would Laura’s life be endangered at her father’s hands?

I wished I could have stolen a look at the truck driver. I’d never met Laura’s dad. In all the previous service calls, not once had he been home. Did he look into my car? Did he recognize Laura? The thought horrified me.

“Honey, do you think your dad saw you as we passed?”

She shook her head. She must have watched his face, even if I didn’t get a peek.

“Is your dad the reason your mom sent you with me?”

A hesitation. Then a quick nod. This was a family dispute.

Nola’s words echoed in my mind. Her life is in danger. I shuddered.

In danger from her dad. Something she failed to mention.

No police, Nola had begged. Why not?

“It’ll be all right, Laura,” I said to reassure her.

Would it though? I was unconvinced.

Why is the girl afraid of her dad? How long will Izzy have to look after Laura’s well-being? To find out, order your copy of Sundrop Sonata at these suppliers, or come to Art in the Park October 3 in Winfield.

https://www.watermarkbooks.com/book/9781530303830

https://bracebooks.indielite.org/book/9781530303830

In the Shadow of the Wind: Prologue

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

Where there is injury, pardon.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master,

Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;

To be understood, as to understand;

To be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

And it is in dying that we are born again into eternal life.

St. Francis of Assissi

Lord, make me an instrument.

If it be Your will, use me as Your pen.

Make my mind like a blank piece of paper

And write upon it Your truths and Your wisdom.

Lord, make me Your instrument.

                                                             Ann Christine Fell  1985

 Prologue

“It’s okay, Daisy Pup,” I said. The small spaniel whined. I drew her to my chest and we cuddled together. Thunder exploded in the air above our little tent. The after-rumbles faded. Seconds later rain pelted the nylon roof of my fair-weather shelter. Daisy shivered in my arms. “It’ll be okay.” I tried to convince myself.

I felt foolish. How could I have thought this was a good idea? How could I have dreamed that I would be able to withstand forty days in the wilderness? The rain turned my plan into a futile effort that bordered on the edge of insanity.

A drop of water stabbed my forehead. In the gray afternoon light, I saw hundreds of droplets hang heavily from the inside of the tent roof. The threat of a cold shower hovered inches away.

“Good Lord, Daisy—it’s going to rain inside the tent.”

There was no escape from the chill in the air. No escape from the fingers of cold that crept up from below. No escape from—“Oh, my God, the sleeping bag is wet.”

I shifted sideways in the orange tent and discovered we huddled in a growing pool of water, now about an inch deep. “Oh, God, this is crazy.”

My canine companion stood and shook.

“You need to go out?”

She wagged her stubby tail and shook again. I unzipped the door and she jumped into the deluge. I grabbed my boots and began to pull one over a damp sock. On second thought, I tied the laces together, removed my socks, and backed out of the low-slung tent. I pulled my backpack into the soggy afternoon, zipped the tent door shut, and stood barefoot in black ooze.

Daisy splashed through standing water. She located a slight rise, squatted, and relieved herself. I glanced at the sodden landscape. Water stood everywhere, and I was already soaked to the skin in the downpour. What were we to do? I turned in a circle and searched for shelter. An old railroad boxcar, the only farm structure that remained on the abandoned farm, stood behind the tent.

I stooped to look under the boxcar. We could wiggle under it. I quickly discarded that idea. The prospect of lying in muck was no better than sitting in a wet tent. Though padlocks secured the sliding doors of the boxcar, the aged wooden sides looked weathered. One ragged gap at the leading edge of the north door panel appeared almost large enough for me to wiggle inside.

I slogged to the side of the boxcar and grasped the lower edge of one wooden slat. Frantically, I tugged on the worn end. I put my entire weight behind my efforts and ripped panels, inches at a time, until the opening had grown twice as large.

“Come here, Daisy. Let’s check this out.” She was instantly at my mud-covered heels. I patted the dark floor of the boxcar, which stood forty inches off the ground. Daisy leaped. With an assist from me, she scrambled into the dark interior. I stuffed my backpack behind her, slogged to the tent and pulled my boots and the bedding into the storm. I struggled to maintain balance as I slipped back to the hole in the door and crammed the bundle of blankets inside. Then I leaned into the darkness of the abandoned car and jumped. On my stomach, legs dangling out the opening, I snaked forward a few inches. With flailing arms, I reached into the darkness in search of something to grab.

There. Something metallic. Perhaps an old piece of farm equipment. I didn’t know. I could see very little. But it didn’t budge, so I was able to pull myself into the relatively dry interior of the old boxcar. Across the car, Daisy explored the darkness through her nose. She snuffled and sneezed a couple times. I stood and felt my way around the area. After locating a pile of old shingles along the south wall, I propped the backpack on the floor beside them. I shook the bedding. All of it felt damp. My clothing was soaked through, so I wrapped the blankets and sleeping bag around my shoulders. I sat on the shingles and leaned against the wall of the boxcar.

Daisy jumped lightly onto my lap. We shared each other’s warmth as the deluge continued outside. Moments after we both settled down, I heard scratching noises inside the boxcar. Light-footed creatures scampered about the interior now that we sat still. I hugged Daisy a little tighter. I could see pinpoints of light here and there, small eyes that reflected the afternoon light filtering in through holes in the wall. Oh, my God.

Rats. Lots of them. I screamed.

“I am such a fool, Daisy. Why do you put up with me?”

She licked my chin.

I spoke to my husband Craig. “What am I going to do? I can’t do this. I can’t live without you.”

He didn’t answer. I was on my own.

Time is a funny thing. To a child, a year seems a long time. Ten years, an eternity. To a grandmother, those same ten years are but a blink of an eye. For Craig and me, a young couple in love, ten years before us was hard to visualize. But the decade passed too fast, too soon. If we had known that all our joys and memories, our plans and dreams, would have to be packed into one decade would we have spent our days differently? Would our choices have been laced with more love and wisdom, or with desperate lunacy? Based on the law of averages, we had every reason to expect several decades together.

Yet there was barely one.

“It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” I railed against the universe.

Daisy whined softly and licked my chin again as if she understood. The storm mirrored the anguish in my heart. The entire universe wept with me. “What are we going to do, girl? I don’t know where we’re heading. I only know where we’ve been.”

 

Following a series of tragic losses, at age thirty the author struggled alone in a strange and frightening world.  The young widow and bereaved mother retreated to the wilderness for comfort and healing. Planning to stay forty days, she set up a solitary camp on the river bank of her family’s abandoned farm homestead. Marooned by rising flood waters after only a few days, she faced her own mortality.

There is life after loss. Through a sequence of extraordinary events, In the Shadow of the Wind tells how one ordinary woman learned to dance on the threshold of fear, to cherish every moment of life, and to believe in her inner resources to conquer adversity.

To read more, order from these book suppliers or come to Art in the Park in Winfield, October 3.

https://www.watermarkbooks.com/book/9781502478375

https://bracebooks.indielite.org/book/9781502478375

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1502478374

This Whirlwind Called Life

Do you ever feel like we’re caught up in a whirlwind? Daily disasters headline every news source. Everyone feels like we’re doomed if “the other side” wins the coming election.

(And we are, aren’t we?)

I am overwhelmed with topics to consider for posts on my blog. Book reviews of memoirs written by significant characters in the 2020 dramas, highlights of critical climate situations, hopeful solutions to drawdown the carbon/greenhouse gas levels in our atmosphere, life issues, family issues—the list is so long, I am paralyzed with indecision about where to begin.

What’s a writer to do?

Maybe we need a breather. Let’s step back for a few precious moments and just think about something else. Indulge our frantic minds with something trivial and entertaining. Perhaps through perusing something unexpected, something less dire, we might actually come out with new ideas and readiness to continue onward with renewed hope and a glimmer of optimism. I hope so.

There is a weekend approaching that offers some refreshing diversion. The first days of October bring two opportunities to take a break, go a different way, rejuvenate and refresh with a bit of entertainment and social interaction of a different sort.

2019 KAC convention in WIchita, Kansas

I refer on one hand to the annual Kansas Authors Club convention, often the first weekend in October, as it is this year. For the very first time ever, the 2020 convention was planned for District 7, out in Colby, Kansas. I was looking forward to that, since my childhood years were spent in Colby. I still have good friends there, not to mention many fond memories from my early life. But when COVID hit, the convention plans switched to an online format, another first for KAC.  It’s not too late to register for this online convention. Check it out here: https://kansasauthors.org

While disappointing in one way, I am enthusiastic in another. Since online access to virtual events can be found anywhere, I can be in two places at once. The second place is the annual Art in the Park event in Winfield, which I have missed for several years. But this year, I plan to set up a table for my books.

The layout will be a little different this year due to the COVID restrictions. More space than usual will be allowed between booths. Though this is an outdoor event and the park is spacious, vendors and visitors will wear face masks.  Amble among the booths, allowing plenty of space between families and small groups of art lovers. It will still be fun–and a much needed activity during this difficult time.

Come to Island Park on Saturday, October 3, to amble through the displays. Stop at my book table. Perhaps you are someone who needs a break from the disastrous news headlines. Look to find diversion through fictional stories. Lose yourself in a book, or two, or three.

In preparation for both events that celebrate the arts and literature, I will share the introductory chapters of my three books in the next few days. In blog posts, take a look at what you might find in the virtual KAC bookroom, or at my table in Island Park.

On that first Saturday in October, don your favorite facemask and head to the park. Drop by my table to say hello. Practice your smeyeling! Perhaps a mask contest for the most unique or artistic creation is in order. Details coming soon.

 

We Need More Hugs

Meadowlark Books (https://www.meadowlark-books.com/) recently sent a book I’d ordered, accompanied by a couple of bookmarks and a “Thank You” insert. On the back side was a list, “How to Hug an Author.”

I started thinking about hugs. We all need them but they’ve become scarce in this age of social distancing. A quick google search will turn up beneficial information. Family therapist Virginia Satir is credited with this: “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.”

That gives us a real quandary during the pandemic. Of course we can rely on our housemates for a few genuine squeezes, and of course, we’ll reciprocate. But will it be enough to keep us sane?

What happens in a hug? More google information: “your muscles relax, circulation increases and this helps release endorphins that reduce tension and soothe discomfort. Hugs can increase levels of dopamine and serotonin, which elevate your mood and relieve depression.”

Goodness knows we need lots of that these days.

On a roll: “Hugs boost oxytocin levels to decrease stress hormones and reduce feelings of loneliness, anger, and isolation. They build trust and a sense of safety. They strengthen the immune system.”

But when your health and survival depend on keeping your distance, how do you manage to keep up with the hugs?

A local friend, instructor at the private college in town, encountered my daughter this summer while she was home for a few days. His first inclination was to wrap her in a big hug, to let her know he was glad to see her. BUT, he couldn’t do that, given all the unknowns, and unseens, and risks that are too great to be ignored. His solution was to reach toward her, keeping the prescribed distance, and draw his hand to his own chest, over his heart, with a smile. See the suggestion here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfuRYBsX9F0&feature=share&fbclid=IwAR3cyfU45kSKp1g8J5jhtymOyQF7-Q6pnw7tqWodvDRgp8eBiey0feP62nk

I have been in Zoom meetings where at the end participants all reached their open palms toward their computer/phone cameras as if they could touch those in the meeting, no matter how far they were scattered. There are ways to connect, emotionally and mentally, even without physical hugs. We benefit from little votes of confidence, nods of our worth, and respect for our efforts in life, the little hugs regardless of the way they arrive. But without a genuine physical squeeze, we may need more than 12 to prosper.

The note inside the cover of Julie Stielstra’s new release, Opulence, Kansas listed a few simple steps for “How to Hug an Author.”

  • Read a book
  • If you like a book, tell everyone—friends, family, people you meet in passing
  • Write a review of a book you enjoy and share it on social media, an online bookstore, or with your local independent bookseller!

We all need hugs. I resolve to give more bear hugs to my family, and more virtual hugs to those I encounter online, more encouragement to my distant friends with acknowledgement of their accomplishments, musically, rhetorically, physically, intellectually, and in the publishing world.

Hope to get some back!

Here’s a hug for Julie.

Opulence, Kansas This story follows a high school student as she harbors with distant relatives to heal from a family trauma. It is labeled YA (for young adults) but long past my teen years, I found it enticing. I loved that Kate was a photographer. I loved the scenes set in the underground tunnels of a town in central Kansas, much like Ellinwood. I loved that she discovered the secret that we Kansans guard so well: that there is mystical, magical beauty in our rolling hills and heavenly vistas. Kate faced lots of life’s social challenges in one short summer, almost too many to be adequately explored in the 37 chapters of the book. It left questions that made me wonder if a sequel is planned. What will Travis decide to do? Will the friendship between Kate and Travis grow? What, exactly, did Kate’s dad do that triggered his suicide? How did she come up with the book’s title? I hope there will be further stories to answer these and other questions.

Only in a Leap Year

Well, here we are. Through yet another quirk produced by Leap Day, we are six months to the day past the invigorating launch of Sonata of Elsie Lenore on February 9, 2020.

Today is another Sunday afternoon on the prairie. Only in Leap Years would you find this to be so. Six months to the day, same day of the week.

I know. Who would think of something like that?

I do. It’s a quirky attribute of my mind, looking consciously (or subconsciously) for patterns. Now this doesn’t happen to all months, due to differing lengths of various months. But February to August?

Check.

Dates match days of the week up until August 29. Only in a Leap Year.

And only in this particular Leap Year did the intervening months dissolve into obscurity. The pace of our ratrace life slowed and we sheltered at home, away from all but our most intimate contacts. It’s almost like we collectively took a long nap.

It’s time to wake up.

We’re still mired in the consternation of a deadly pandemic. The sun rises and the sun sets. We get aggravated at each other. The ills of our culture are scrutinized under a microscope. We’ve re-evaluated priorities, taken stock of where we’ve been and where we want to be. And we have little clue how to get there.

Take a deep breath.

After watching a time-leap movie last evening, I started wondering, “What if?” What if I could wrinkle up the last six-months in the space-time continuum (thank you, Madeleine L’Engle) and return to February 9?

 

What a day that was! Busy from dawn to dark with “The Last County-Wide Duet Festival,” hosting guest artists, several writer friends, Elsie’s illustrator,

Cover artist, Onalee Nicklin

concert attendees—and then performing.

At the close of the concert, Sonata of Elsie Lenore was available for the first time and I signed copies for forty minutes straight.

That was an exciting launch. But then, after catching my breath, and recuperating from the madness, before I could even consider my next project, COVID hit.

And we slammed into a wall. The world stopped spinning. And we’ve been in limbo since.

Now jump that wrinkle to today. We’re in no better place with COVID than before, and there’s no end in sight. Yet given the auspicious parallels between February 9 and August 9, I decided to revitalize Elsie with a promotion. Perhaps some of you could use a diversion to get your mind off other things. If that’s the case, I invite you to consider taking a break to read Sonata of Elsie Lenore or even Sundrop Sonata if you have yet to do that.

Toward that end, I have taken some difficult steps for someone with my distress for public scrutiny. Just so you know, I set up a brand new author page on Goodreads, (https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/8596325.Ann_Christine_Fell),  revised my Amazon author page, (https://www.amazon.com/author/annchristinefell) and started a Facebook page (Ann Christine Fell, author) devoted to posts about books and the writing process.

I invite you to check each of these. If you find it to your liking, follow one or more of these pages. Those of you who are so inclined can post a review, especially if you think somebody else might enjoy reading the tales.

May each of you stay healthy and evade the notorious virus. I’ll see you when we emerge from this cloud of uncertainty and face our new and improved futures.

Re-Writing Life

What do you do when your first novel receives great reviews, and people urge you to write more? That’s the real test. Last week I listened in on a live interview with Edwin Hill, author of Little Comfort and The Missing Ones. He mentioned how there is a delicious freedom with the first novel—no expectations, no deadline, nobody waiting anxiously for the arrival of the book. The second book presents the real challenge.

For subsequent works, you must write under pressure of expectations. Can I fulfill the requests of readers and maintain integrity with mywriting? Do I have more stories inside, worthy of being shared? How long will it take? And how long will the readers wait patiently for an attempt?

It was definitely a challenge to write a second novel. You’d think, now that I’d done it once, the second novel would be easier. But that was not so. It was hard, writing Sonata of Elsie Lenore.  I wanted to satisfy my readers. I needed another suspenseful tale, utilizing pianos and piano technicians as characters. I wanted to provide readers with another Izzy story.  After all, that was what several readers specifcally asked for.

But Izzy was all storied out. I tried mightily to write Elsie Lenore with Isabel Woods as the protagonist, but it just didn’t work. Maybe she could be the narrator then? That didn’t work either.

The seed of the Elsie story germinated 20 years ago, and was nourished by events since, but there was nothing quite as concrete as the events that wrote themselves in the Sundrop story. I had to introduce new characters, as well as keep the older ones, and it was HARD. It seemed that Elsie Lenore just didn’t want to sprout. Or she did, but the seedling was all twisted and wrong. The story didn’t flow. Even after I had a complete draft, and was re-working the three parts, it wasn’t coming together. I  finally realized it was because this was no longer Izzy’s story. I was trying to make it another Izzy adventure, but this story belonged to someone else. It belonged to Stefano.

And I re-wrote the entire book. Several times.

Elsie Lenore has been through so many re-writes and revisions, I have lost count, but there are 6 different outlines in my computer files. Six major revisions later, Sonata of Elsie Lenore was released–shortly before the world screeched to a halt with the COVID-19 pandemic, and that added a new layer of complication. Everything looks different through a coronavirus lens, but I hope the final product is one that readers will enjoy, as they follow Stefano Valdez from Izzy’s piano shop in Kansas to Cuba and back again. I hope they cheer him on as he grapples with major failures and shortcomings in his personal life.

It’s true that the biggest part of the writing job, is, in fact, revising and re-writing. Polish the prose. Edit for clarity and flow. Do it again and yet again. And when you realize that the story just isn’t working the way you envisioned, you have the prerogative and the privilege to start again. Indeed, more than a prerogative and a privilege, it may be more of an obligation to re-write.

This makes me think of our global situation today. Right now, our society, our culture, and our species own the same prerogative. The same obligation. The pause in life gifted to us by COVID-19 has allowed us to step back and take a look. Things just weren’t working out too well for most people–not to mention most of the living things on this planet. Were they? This is the perfect time to re-write our future. We may not receive such a chance again.

As we move from isolation cautiously back into the social realm, let’s tread carefully, step out in a different direction, and when the path forks, flip a coin and try something different. Only one thing is certain. We can’t go backwards. Forward is the only way to go.

Let’s re-write our future together.

Having Nothing is Living Free, 2

(The second part of a series recapping my tour of Cuba which helped refine scenes in the new Sonata of Elsie Lenore, another piano novel of suspense featuring Cuban--and Kansas--pianos and musicians.)

Los Caneyes hotel was unique in my experience. Named for some of the aboriginal inhabitants of Cuba, the Caney people, the lodgings spread across several acres. Footpaths connected buildings that housed about four suites each, as well as smaller cabins that were single rooms. My room was one of these small cabins with twin beds, an air conditioner with Celcius degrees, remotely operated, a shower (no tub), and an ironing board with an umbrella hanging on it. The cabin stood beside a solar water heater set between two other cabins. I noticed my water was hot even early in the morning. Each structure in the facility was topped with palm-thatched roofs.

We dined in style with a buffet dinner. At dinner, a young man played clarinet continually, quite well, good old familiar show tunes. Later in the evening, there was a fashion show around the outdoor pool.

Tall, long-legged, black Cuban girls in 7-inch stiletto heels paraded around the pool area in swim and beach wear, as well as one young man for men’s beach fashions.

At the far end of the pool, a band struck up tunes—fully live tonight with guitar players, singer, uke, banjo, maybe a keyboard, drums. They performed long after I retired for the night.

The next morning I woke early—before 4:00, and rested until the alarm went off on my phone. Though it was still dark out, birds chirped and roosters crowed. It sounded like small bantams. I packed my bags and set off on an early morning walk. The lodgings at Los Caneyes were fascinating with all the thatched roofs. Most of the group buildings had a central courtyard around a statue of some figure significant in aboriginal stories, or perhaps Santeria saints.

There were several dead tree trunks with faces carved in them.

Ornamental plants, including a variety that I have enjoyed in my own home since I was in grade school, provided attractive landscaping. Blooming bushes, mimosa trees, song birds, plants growing out of tree stumps, palm trees, begonias, bougainvillea, and ficus trees with massive exposed roots lined the paths.

After breakfast, we loaded the bus and headed into Santa Clara. Our first stop was the Che Guevara monument. It was a lovely place, very tidy, free of charge, and our guide filled us in on Che’s story, which ended badly at the hands of a US CIA sting operation in Bolivia several years after the revolution.

Che (Ernesto) was born in Argentina and educated as a medical doctor. As a young man he traveled through much of Latin American, which changed his perspective on life. He met Fidel Castro in Mexico and joined the Cuban revolution to free the people from tyranny. A guerilla commander as well as a physician, he orchestrated the conquest of an armored train, derailing it in Santa Clara and acquiring the arms inside. That was a turning point in the revolution.

He laid siege to a hotel in downtown Santa Clara, and bullet strikes are preserved on that building where many of Batista’s officers sought refuge. Two days later they surrendered, having run out of ammunition. This was a significant victory for the rebels, the beginning of the end for Batista.

Around the square below the historic hotel, a goat pulled a cart for children’s rides. At a nearby club for Abuelos (grandparents) they danced and played games, told us the story of fan language, used by young women to signal young men at dances, under the watchful eyes of chaperones.

We drove to the airport to fetch one lady’s luggage that had been lost and on to Cienfuegos over rough pavement, swaying back and forth.

In Cienfuegos, we attended a string orchestral concert by Concerto Sur Cienfuegos that was delightful with a variety of classical, popular, and Cuban compositions. Before it was done, they had us all up and dancing with their dance leader.

We headed back along the coast to our hotel in downtown Cienfuegos where dinner was served in the rooftop restaurant with windows and balcony door open.

Another ensemble provided music from the indoor balcony in the dining room.

Having Nothing is Living Free, 1

In early March, 2019, I flew to Miami for the first time in my life where I met the rest of a tour group bound for Cuba the next day. Eight of us in the group took a tour with Mario, a Cuban-American bus driver, to see downtown Little Havana, a rough and tumble place. He bought Cuban coffee shots for those who wanted to try it from an outdoor café and we walked along the streets, finally arriving at a Cuban pub for a first experience with mojitos– and very loud salsa music. It was interesting to see the art hung around, even from the ceiling and watch young (or not so young) dancers. Though the lead vocalist, a woman from Puerto Rico, and  the percussionist were live, the main melody was a recording, so I would didn’t agree that it was live music. Toward the end of our stay, a guy joined in on the previously silent grand piano. Alas, the music volume was so cranked up, the piano was still unheard. I had not remembered earplugs, but started carrying them with me everywhere I went. However, I never needed them again. Cuban street music and performed music is genuinely live and is not limited to fortissimo volume.


A mural nearby showed some black girls in white, representing a weekly Sunday ritual in Havana, a silent protest against the communists in Havana.

The next day our group caught a flight to Santa Clara, Cuba. Our tour was a People-to-People tour sponsored by Road Scholar. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was ready for anything, to soak up the experience as research for the scenes from Sonata of Elsie Lenore that are set in Cuba. 

My first view of Cuba from the airplane was through clouds, but I identified agricultural fields, and a field of solar panels. The time was 4:45 pm EST. We landed at the Santa Clara airport* at 4:55, de-planed down a set of stairs and walked to the airport door. My first step in Cuba occurred at 5:02 pm.

It was a long day of waiting for a little bit of travel, but we had finally arrived and worked our way through Cuban customs. One lady’s checked bag was lost, but the rest of us gathered our bags, met our Cuban Guide Ilen (pronounced “Elaine”) headed to the waiting bus where we met our bus driver, Ernesto. Our first views along the road included horse-drawn wagons, rough dwellings, banana, guava, and maybe tobacco fields, and lots of palm trees. Trash was piled at intervals in the roadside ditches, or in waterways. Dogs scratched through the refuse. A dead dog lay in one ditch, with vultures gathering.

Then we arrived at our lodging, Los Caneyes, and WOW!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*In the last few months travel to Cuba has been restricted only to the Havana airport. Americans today would not be able to duplicate the itinerary we enjoyed.

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Chapter One

LENA VALDEZ CRINGED when her husband hammered the Steinway piano lid with his fist.

His rage growing, Enrique’s knuckle bones threatened to burst through his skin. “I told you,” he said, “no more of this Lecuona crap. Do the jazz. Tonight we want the best Cuban jazz.” The youngest of the three Diaz brothers punctuated every other syllable with his fist until the piano’s heavy bass strings vibrated with a rising cacophony.

She shrank from every blow.

“Understand?” he yelled.

, Enrique,” she said.

“Get to the jazz. I’m counting on you tonight. ¿Comprendes?

She looked down, her fingers rubbing the familiar ivory ridges of the piano keys.

“¿Lena?” he said.

She felt rather than saw his arm rise and spoke with haste. “Please, Enrique. Don’t hit the piano.”

“Jazz then. Hear me?”

She nodded. Yes, she heard him. How could she not? She could hardly recall a time he spoke to her without yelling. “, I will play jazz.”

“One hour. Then we dress for the show. No more Lecuona.”

She flexed her fingers, took a deep breath, and leaned into the keys. A recent island melody by Jorge Marin swelled from the piano. Swinging with the beat, Enrique danced out the door of the Caribbean Breeze, a nightclub in New Orleans.

Her hands flew over the keys as she coaxed melodious rhythms from the worn Steinway. It wasn’t that she hated jazz. After all, jazz expressed Cuba’s heart and soul. It sang of the courage and beauty of her countrymen. She loved jazz, but she loved classics more and she needed Lecuona right now. Their mother raised her and her brother on Lecuona, embracing classical Cuban tradition.

Lena completed the Marin number and stifled a sob.

“You okay Señorita?” Roberto, the bartender and manager of the nightclub, peeked in from a back room.

She nodded. “I will be fine.”

“I heard some yelling,” he said and cocked his head, inviting her to say more.

She forced a laugh. “Enrique. He’s always yelling,” she explained away the outburst. “It will be fine.”

“If you’re sure.” He turned back into the storage room.

She waited a moment, gathering her nerve, her fingers silent on the piano keys. In a timid voice, she said, “Roberto?”

When he didn’t respond, she tried again, louder. “Roberto?”

He stuck his head through the swinging door again. “You say something?”

“I just wondered if you would tell me where I could mail a postal card.” She fished a postcard from her handbag.

“Sending greetings from good old New Orleans?” he said with a smile.

Sí. I want to contact my brother.”

“Stefano? How is he anyway? I heard he’d tied the knot with a beauty from up north somewhere.”

She nodded. “I just want to let him know I am here. Where could I mail the card?”

He extended his hand. “Leave it with me. I’ll make sure it goes out tomorrow.”

Gracias, Roberto.”

The bartender disappeared into the back room with her card. Lena took a deep breath before she continued her rehearsal. If only Stefano would meet her here. Would he even get the postcard in time? He didn’t know she was booked at the Caribbean Breeze, their old favorite nightclub. Maybe he wouldn’t even believe she was here, set to perform on Mama’s piano, “Elsie Lenore.” He sure didn’t know she’d married into a family of drug smugglers or that she was miserable.

He didn’t know.

She launched into another Marin number. At its close, she whispered into the keys, “Elsie—Elsie, what will I do?”

Unexpectedly, her mother’s voice whispered in her mind. “We do what we must.”

In a flash of recollection she visualized the lewd sneer of her former stepfather as he appraised her youthful body and her mother stepping between them— “Not my daughter, you bastard!” Her mother had split up with that man before the next week passed.

A year later a new gentle suitor presented her mother with the same Steinway she’d lost after the Revolution. A gift from her father when she was young, she had fondly dubbed the piano Elsie Lenore. It was offered as a wedding gift for the woman he’d loved all his life and Lena’s mother could not refuse his proposal. Lena and Stefano had grown to love that piano as much as their mother did.

Her mother’s voice whispered again. We do what we must.

“Yes, we do.” Lena’s hands teased the keys as she pondered her limited options. Elsie Lenore and her brother Stefano offered one thin thread of hope. Surely he would understand. He had to.

Her fingers caressed the keys and cajoled an Afro-Cuban piece from the belly of the piano. The melody grew, and then waned. She dropped her left hand and allowed her right hand to sketch a rhythmic melody up the keys as she diverted her left hand to the piano case.

Following the melodic sequence, she ran her fingertips to the treble end of the mahogany trim at her waist and pried upward. With a full-keyboard glissando, she moved to the bass end and inched up the trim until the keyslip was free of its mounting screws. She placed it across the music desk without the slightest click.

The music soared again when her left hand joined in. She strummed repeated staccato chords, lifted her hands at the finale, and froze, listening.

Silencio.

Roberto must have gone out for a few moments. Nobody remained inside the club.

She retrieved a set of dining utensils and a paper napkin from the nearest table and spread the napkin beneath the bass keys. Slipping the knife tip underneath a key, she scraped against the key frame, teasing a fine white dust to the edge. She repeated the process under four keys, and scraped the powder onto the napkin. Tossing the knife to the floor, she lifted the napkin’s corners, cradled the powder into its middle, and with a sigh folded it into a tiny envelope. Her brother would have been proud to know she’d learned some intricacies of piano construction. She, for her part, was grateful for his fascination with the technical side of the instrument.

Gracias, Stefano,” she whispered.

She tucked the parcel securely into her cleavage, replaced the trim, and lost herself in the music.

Will Stefano get the postcard? What did she write to her brother? What exactly did she decide she must do? What’s the white powder she collected from the piano? Find the answers: order Sonata of Elsie Lenore from these suppliers or come to Art in the Park in Winfield, October 3.

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A Cycle of Leap Years

2004

Twenty-eight years ago, a new friend and piano client told me about the county-wide duet festival. She invited me to play with her in that 1992 event and I had a blast. We diligently practiced the two duets chosen for the first of two adult groups. On the weekend of the festival, we met for a group rehearsal at the county’s junior college. Twenty home-sized upright pianos stood in a scattered array on the gymnasium floor at the college. We chose one, watched the conductor give the downbeat and joined the piano ensemble in one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

I had played piano since age 7, and was involved in annual recitals, 4-H Day competitions, and accompanying school musicals, but never had I played in a piano band such as this. The feat of tuning those twenty pianos for the Sunday afternoon performance was mind-boggling to contemplate, not to mention moving all of them. Twice.

2000

The 1992 Keyboard Piano Duet Festival changed my life. I enjoyed it so much I wanted my own children, and my other students, to have this experience, so I joined the county’s music teacher association. Every year we hosted a group event, with the duet festival every four years. This just happened to coincide with Leap Year. Every Leap Year since 1992, I have helped choose duets for seven progressive skill levels, from the earliest beginner to advanced adult groups. Our association has cooperated with the college, local music stores, and other music clubs, to put on a duet festival every four years.

2000

However, not since 1992 has the festival been held in the gym. And in 1996 as well as each event since, the genuine acoustic pianos were replaced by electronic keyboards. But the students and adult pianists of Cowley County have enjoyed playing duets every Leap Year in a monster piano concert.

This year, on February 9, 2020, at 6:00 pm, we proudly hold The Last Duet Festival on the auditorium stage at Cowley College. The planning committee has dwindled from an association of a dozen active members, to three. Conflicting events from different towns presented obstacle after obstacle that made preparations increasingly difficult to the point that we aging teachers realized we could not do this again in another four years.

2008

It is fitting to conclude the long-standing tradition this year, 28 years since my first duet festival. Leap Years cycle every 28 years and this is the very first year since my debut in the duet event where the calendar days match the days of the week all year long. This is the very first year since 1992 when Leap Day is on a Saturday. The intervening Leap Years cycled randomly through the other days of the week—Thursday in 1996, Tuesday in 2000, Sunday in 2004, Friday in 2008, Wednesday in 2012, and Monday in 2016. Now we’re back to Saturday. It will be 2048 before this calendar repeats itself day-for-day.

To conclude the tradition, we have planned a few special treats. This year, for the first time ever, we will use the stage concert Steinway along with the Clavinovas. My partner from 1992 is playing again, with her daughter. My partner this year is a young man in his 28th year on Earth. Born in Havana, Cuba in 1992, David Pérez is currently working toward a graduate degree in organ performance at Wichita State University. It will be awesome to have this classically trained Cuban master musician play with the local students.

Many of the duets we selected this year were featured in previous festivals. All pianists who choose to do so will be invited to help conclude the program with Walnut River Rag, a duet we commissioned from composer Melody Bober for the 2008 festival.

There will be tables set up in the lobby for an autograph party afterward. Student performers in this memorable event will be invited to autograph programs. I hope they all trade signatures with me.

By special request, my new piano suspense novel Sonata of Elsie Lenore, will premiere to the public after the last note of Walnut River Rag has died away.

2020

Folks can meet the artist who designed the cover for the book, Onalee Nicklin, as well as the Cuban keyboard artist David Pérez.

If you have the means to get there, you won’t want to miss this fantastic event. Brown Theater, Cowley College, Arkansas City, Kansas. Sunday, February 9, 2020, 6:00 pm.

See you there!

2004