A Writer from The Periphery- Fiction as Your Second Language

Winter, snow covered tree landskape at dusk

When you’re a writer and a member of a small nation, you cannot expect the reading world to understand your train of thoughts. I go to great lengths while trying to master English grammar because I hope to gain a wider audience. I use Grammarly to save my writer’s ass, but my literary thoughts have appeared in English since childhood. Don’t ask me why. Maybe I owe it to Hollywood?

The Finns are a northern nation of circa five million people inhabiting a narrow and long stretch of forest between Sweden and The Russian Federation. Our language is tough on grammar, and all of us learn English in school because nobody understands what we are saying- or bothers to learn Finnish. I wouldn’t bother if I didn’t learn it from my mother as an infant. It’s that hard- trust me.

Learning English as a second language poses several challenges on writing fiction.

Even if we Scandinavian writers learn to master perfect English on our keyboards, our patterns of thought and perception remain native Scandinavian.

I tend to write about familiar things which I’ve experienced firsthand. Although my novel The Unholy Warrior takes place in the not-so-distant future, I write about the arctic nature which has enticed me all my life. I take care in explaining things, but sometimes I use sayings which aren’t understood by the English-speaking audience.

If I abided by the writing rules of my favorite author George Orwell, I wouldn’t use a metaphor in the first place. His rule number one is:  “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

So I managed to break the most important rule of my favorite author. He broke his own rules frequently, but he was a master of style and emotional impact. Rules are meant to be bent, right?

More on George Orwell’s writing rules: https://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/george-orwells-5-rules-for-effective-writing/

The Blue Hour vs. The Golden Hour

In my first draft of The Unholy Warrior, I used the term “the blue hour” which is a way the Finns describe the magic blue shade of the arctic scenery right after sunset- during the winter. Everything wears the most magical shades of deep blue. The sparkling snow enhances the luminous color, and the Aurora Borealis appear. Some readers didn’t understand what I meant because they have never seen this phenomenon with their own eyes. The correct term is The Golden Hour. To paint the mental picture for my readers, I must use the wrong color or explain myself.

As a newbie writer, you cannot afford to lose a single reader!

The same goes with Aurora Borealis- the fox fires. Most people have seen images of the sun’s particles hitting the northern atmosphere and creating the ghostly waves of color and form on the polar skies. Sometimes the Aurora Borealis appears in Southern Finland- if you are looking at the evening sky in the countryside where the city lights don’t block the beauty of the untamed nature.

Knowing what Aurora Borealis is, differs from the experience of witnessing them yourself for the first time. The magic will make you cry. It’s that beautiful. The FoxFire rocks the fundament of your soul!

I needed to broaden my description:

“My breath puffs up in clouds. I remove my Canada Goose Expedition parka hood and gaze up.

Each inch of the black velvet fills with dotted stars until the Aurora Borealis lights up the sky with elusive neon green. I take off my down-stuffed mitten, and my hand becomes numb in seconds. It’s freezing: minus twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit. The sky is alive with light, movement, and color. Blue breaks through the darkness. Lilac appears on the edges, where blue dissolves into the ruby red.

And he comes forth from nothingness with stars in his fur. The playful FireFox gallops across the sky. His black paws kick the air in the West where the remnants of the sunset still lick the horizon. The fox arches his back and springs into an agile leap. He lands on his extended front paws in the dark East. He throws his head back while his flames never stop moving. His tail is fluffy and brushes the cold sky with vivid color. Sparkles pop as he touches the hillside and the mute treetops. The tip of his tail whips the dome of heaven until he pauses. When he looks down at me, a sly smile spreads on his canine face. I feel so small compared to the scale of Mother Nature.”

The passage above is an excerpt from my short story Touch of Heaven. You can get it on Amazon Kindle

Or download the story from my web page

The Upside-down Spider

I set up my social media accounts as part of establishing my writing presence on the net. Sometimes I tried to be funny and used the Finnish saying of the upside-down spider. I just realized that no one understood what I meant but I’m not going to elaborate on what the saying means to the Finns (because it’s extremely dirty).

“Upside-down spider” defined by the Urban Dictionary: 

  • An undefinable phase which can pertain to anything in your vast imagination. Correct, I have a boundless imagination.
  • “You’re about as cool as an upside-down spider.” If you said this to a Finnish girl she would seriously maim you.
  • “I’d rather suck my own poop than eat an upside-down spider.” I don’t understand what this means!
  • Charles J. banged a girl resembling an upside-down spider. This example came close enough.

My point being: we the Scandinavians (or Russians, Chinese, Nepalese and so on…) must check out the meaning of the common saying before we write it to an English-speaking audience. I am still pro-slogans despite Mr. Orwell because sometimes the common phrase consolidates the purpose.

“Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous,” is his rule number six and I believe him. After all, his dystopian novel “1984” hangs on the best-seller lists seventy years after he wrote it! https://money.cnn.com/2017/01/25/media/george-orwell-1984-best-seller

The Upside of Being a Writer from the Periphery

Being a member of the distant minority has its sunnier side. You have an excellent opportunity of letting your readers experience your spiritual homeland by writing about the people, the mood, the weather and the animals of your latitude. The northern nature- especially Lapland- is experiencing a boom of tourism after decades of investment in advertising the untouched winter wonderland.

Why not write about it?

Know Thy Enemy- The Making of a Great Villain

Detective interviewing suspect in dark private room

So, you have a theme in mind: justice, revenge, friendship- a theme can be anything. But a great idea has to be universal- it must play the heartstrings of your readers. It knots into the expectations of your audience. The central psychology of stories varies somewhat by the era. If you want your book to surface among the classics, you must have the longevity of a timeless theme. You have to touch upon the common sub-consciousness: story and character archetypes which have been passed on in literature, movies, and music.

What does your villain symbolize? What does he/she stand for? This is important.

Evil dressed up

Christianity has embedded the notions of good and evil into western writing. Great monotheistic religions have similar theories of hell and the devil. The antagonist, if he is a real villain in the classical sense, embodies the ancient idea of the dark one.

22_top25greatestvillains
Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List

We love evil characters. I know I do. Some of the actors I admire have played iconic embodiments of darkness: like Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s list. What could be eviler than a man who shoots a small boy in the back, or tortures a defenseless woman daily?

The antagonist is a vessel for your book’s theme. He dresses up the devil. He is the opposite of your hero’s goal. But remember that evil must be proved through constant actions of vileness. If you litter the pages of your villain with murder and mutilation, one good deed gets more attention.

You want your readers to understand your antagonist, don’t you?

If he/she doesn’t have a tiny speck of goodness, how could people relate to his story? The nightmare embodied has to be understandable. Some of the best monsters show mercy or love to the heroine/hero: like Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter protecting the main character, Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.

Ways to show a speck of “good” inside your antagonist:

  • He/she doesn’t understand what he/she is doing
  • The villain thinks that he is right, that he has the proper moral grounds
  • Ends sanctify the means: world-domination is required to set history straight
  • He suffered from violence and abuse as a child
  • He is a psychopath- and this is really hard to relate to but makes him interesting if you do your research
  • He understands the meaning of his actions in the end
  • Love redeems him. I don’t believe in this one because we each love in our way. Evil loves with murder and violence loves with a punch in the eye. If you have serious writing skills, you can make this one float though.
  • He loves animals or his children. He can’t be totally evil, can he?

Of course, if your villain is simply seething with malevolence, you can kill him in the end. Justice is redeemed and you stand your moral ground.

In real life, the most ruthless violent bastard usually wins. I’m sorry.

Remember that some of the cruelest monsters in world history have believed in their own ideology. Whatever you can conjure from the depths of hell, can never compare to the good intentions which have paved the road to the real-life inferno of genocide.

Description

A good villain can be a pain in the ass for your protagonist. But does he talk to you? If you’re like me, he/she bothers you when you should fall asleep or drive a car, or take the kids to daycare.

How is his/her voice? Raspy? Seducing? Deep? Beware of cliches. How about whiny, wiry, oppressing?

Describing hands or voice or movement is more fertile than the usual color of eyes and hair. What are his mannerisms and bad habits? How does he move? What does he do for a living? And the job is essential. It’s the first question which we ask when we make acquaintance.

If you want to twist the usual clichés, give him a job which conflicts with his evil.

Stalin
Josif Stalin

Thinking about actors who could play your villain helps to visualize your monster. You can find animated gifs about almost every actor from the roles they’ve played. I use the gifs to describe different facial expressions and movements.

If your style is film noir, look up 40’s faces. If your princess of horror roams the distant future, try sci-fi movie actresses.

Searching the web with words like “greatest movie villains” will most likely offer you a library of wickedness which you can build from.

Each depiction is famous for a reason.

If you’re a history buff like me, you will find a catalog of despicable people on the pages of history books. I like to have a real-life equivalent for my villains.

Character Questionnaire

Letting the antagonist answer your questions during a character interview is a great way to get to know your villain.

The net is full of questionnaire forms, like https://www.novel-software.com/theultimatecharacterquestionnaire

Character mannerism lists: https://www.wattpad.com/84533439-a-list-of-500-character-quirks-and-traits-list-1

To avoid information indigestion, make your own list, which suits the novel you are writing at the moment.

And finally, check out your favorite books. Read the epic pages which:

  • introduce the villain and describe him
  • what happens to him in the end?
  • How does the writer show some admirable traits among the constant darkness of evil?
  • What’s his relationship with the hero/heroine?
  • What are his mannerisms, his bad habits, his job, his hobbies, etc.? President Snow tended to roses in his garden in The Hunger Games. And his role was played by one of the greatest character actors: Donald Sutherland.
  • What does he stand for?
  • How do you identify with the antagonist? Can you understand his motives? Why?

I keep a writer’s journal on my favorite villains. I have page after page of classic villainy from the authors I respect. There’s no way- ever- my villain can topple O’Brien in George Orwell’s 1984.

The Masterpieces Which Inspired Me to Write the Unholy Warrior

The post-apocalyptic world

1984George Orwell, 1984: This classic tragedy is the reason why I love dystopian stories. I aim for a drab view of humanity, for a great antagonist and a compassionate protagonist, but my book has the beauty of nature to balance the bloody, cruel plot. The way Orwell depicts the near future: it doesn’t gleam with metal and white like many dystopias do. The future is like the past. It is filled with old stuff and poverty. The rule of the strong over the weak…

What has stood against the test of time (Orwell wrote his book 1948-1949), is his view on the totalitarian rule through surveillance. It’s amazing how vivid his picture is. He wrote before the rise of digital technology. Cameras existed and the TV was around the corner. George Orwell shows us how to rule through a device called the telescreen. The telescreen broadcasts government propaganda into every home and observes each individual every second of their lifetime. How scary is that?

1984 lives on and continues to be a bestseller like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s tale– which is a female’ view on the same themes, plus rape (to save the mankind). Actually, 1984 depicts a theme of procreation as service to the government.

I don’t intend to explain the concise rise of totalitarianism like Orwell did, but my book’s world has its roots in today’s political situation: the born-again threat of nuclear war, constant conflict and the rise of strong Russia. I’m familiar with WWII history and my world-building counts on history repeating itself. My future- set in 2048- feels and tastes like WWII. I believe that the future is like the past.

roadCormac McCarthy, The Road: I love his simple and blunt way with language. Again, his blank dusty world without hope appeals to me. The atmosphere of The Road is unique. Some parts of my plot include roaming the wild post-apocalyptic lands.

Hugh Howey, The Silo: I love how his people build strange societies and survive against impossible odds. The Silo encases the idea that the battle for control continues despite the low number of survivors. Old things get new meanings, and people behave like they have always done. I love the slow building of suspense Howey uses, but I aim for entertainment and The Unholy Warrior is fast-paced.

walking_deadTVseries: The Walking Dead: Vivid description of the rules of survival and the workings of different post-apocalyptic societies. The sense of Justice in Rick Grimes and the haunted beauty of empty dwellings and the constant presence of danger. I yearn to describe the untamed sceneries, the world which has changed because humans don’t get to destroy and roam like they used to.

Also, the Denzel Washington movie Book of Eli might feel somewhat familiar despite the frozen, snow-covered setting of my world. When I started writing Rebane, Maqqie Q in Nikita tv-series was a distant inspiration. Rebane has since begun to live and talk, and she ended up very different.

darknessArthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon: I love the immediacy of war and totalitarianism in books which were written during WWII or right after it. The usage of third-person omniscient is vivid and remains close to the pov character in Koestler’s and Orwell’s texts. A man of the same caliber is Graham Greene (The Tenth Man).

John LeCarre made cold war entertaining. His other novels are massive, but The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is tight-packed and gripping. My book’s first act is set in the world of Military Intelligence, and I do meticulous research for believability. John LeCarre is the grand master of believability. Even his terms like lamplighters and babysitters have taken a new life in the real world.

Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum are my action writer idols, and in the writer’s workshop, I’ve been compared to both gentlemen. The feeling of urgency in combat description is important to make the reader tense, live within the skin of the main character.

John Keegan, Intelligence in War and his other works on Military Intelligence and history. Keegan is a household name.

unwomanlySvetlana Alexievich, The Unwomanly Face of War. I highly recommend this Russian writer and a Nobel prize winner! The Unwomanly Face of War is a collection of interviews with Russian women who fought at the frontlines of World War II. Their memories recollect the evil horror but also the beauty of being a human female. I cried many times during reading this book. The reality and truth of their experiences are heartfelt among the words. This book had a great effect on my point-of-view character, Rebane Nordstrom.

David Livingstone Smith, The Most Dangerous Animal, Human Nature and the Origins of War. You might not share Livingstone Smith’s evolutionary views on human violence, but this book is an eye-opener. The writer digs deep into the history of philosophy and explains difficult theories with easy language (as easy as possible anyway). For me, the biological perspective was the most interesting. I don’t believe that humans can exist without war. Aggression has made us the top of the food chain. Unfortunately, we rip our own species and the earth apart while we are true to our nature.

Check out my Goodreads profile to find out more about the sources of my inspiration…

 

How to Bring the Magic of Nature into Your Writing

Backcountry atmospheric  frozen remote country in winter
Lapland in the heart of a long and dark winter

Each natural place has its own form of magic. When we lived in the countryside as some still do, we had a direct connection to wind, rain, stones, fir needles… and whatever was plentiful around us. We believed in the old gods and goddesses which were natural and animalistic spirits. When humanity started to settle down and grow crops, our religions mutated. Man became the crown of creation. He ruled, and the wild beasts obeyed. We still retained some old forms of magical thought like the exchange of gifts with a deity. Devotion could save the crops and a ritualistic offering would please God.

Take a moment to reflect on your own beliefs. The nature of feeling close to God depends on the person and his/her religion.

  • What do you believe nature is?
  • How do you want to cast her in your books?

If you live in Utah, you know how the desert wind feels on your skin. You know what a clear night out there looks like. If you live in Canada, you can understand my example story because you can assimilate.

Never mind the setting. I’ll approach the subject through literary excerpts. I have my own experience of the wild Finnish nature in winter, and my fellow Write Practice Story Cartel member Nia Ellis has written a poem about the natural elements.

When you can, venture out. Smell, touch, and look around. Then write down how the weather makes you feel: blessed or annoyed? Your own immediate experience is a great muse. The research will help you to describe things that are long gone, or far away.

But nothing beats first-hand experience.

husky_eyes

My own view on the subject

I drive with my team of eight husky dogs somewhere in Northern Finland. It’s a night ride. A fresh layer of snow rained during a windy day which molded the effortless stuff into sleek dunes. The night is staggering bright with a full moon.

My dogs are panting. The light birch wood race sled runs smoothly. It weighs only twenty-two pounds and I produce one-hundred and ten more. We move incredibly fast.

The silvery moonlight reflects from the tiny crystals of the powder snow. I put out my headlamp when I reach the curve which leads into the snow-covered heart of the pine and fir tree forest. I slow down into a standstill with the soft mat brake and order the dogs to wait. I push the anchor into the deep bank with my heavy boot. The dogs jump up and down when they understand that we are going nowhere.

I yell the order “stop!” repeatedly but half of my team consists of young dogs still in training. They yank their harnesses in agitation. The white bitch, Omen, keeps bouncing up and down with all her paws in the air.

“Why are we stopping?” She seems to ask with her light blue eyes as she gazes back at me.

But I don’t give in. They must learn to wait to earn rank.

My breath puffs up in clouds. I remove my Canada Goose Expedition parka hood. I gaze up.

The Aurora Borealis lights up the sky with elusive neon green. Each inch of the black velvet is filled with stars. I take off my down stuffed mitten and my hand becomes numb in seconds. It’s freezing: minus twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit. I track the outlines of the Milky Way with my index finger…

I feel the touch of God on my face.

I’m pulled out of it as Ferro, the young male, releases a sorrowful wail which can be heard for miles. Standing put is against his eager nature. His father reprimands him by standing steadfast with spread legs while the youngster yanks the ropes again. A disapproving look from the older husky’s amber eyes stops him from moving.

I pray that the harnesses can hold their strength. My huskies are lean but muscular. Each one seems to have a built-in nuclear power plant. They are molded for the race. I smile in admiration and release the anchor.

“Drive!”

(We say drive in Finland, not “Mush!”)

They move faster than my thoughts and I’m in heaven.

The Poem of Nia Ellis

Annual Seasons sang a medley of diversity.

Warm summer nights kiss softly.

A blanket of greenery dress the ground.

A chorus takes over. Soft white treasures fall from the sky.

Arctic cold wintry benumbed the innocent.

You can find out more about Nia on her web-page: niaellis.com

The Personification of Nature and Animals

What follows, is an excerpt from my book The Unholy Warrior. The two heroines dismember their enemies and feed their bodies to the wolves. This wolf pack is dangerous because the radiation has made the canines more aggressive.

“The wolves smelled blood from miles away. Rebane didn’t want them tasting human flesh near the cabin. At dusk- when they set out to hunt- it was perilous to be here. The women finished unloading the second body when Rebane saw the blazing lower half of the sun gluing to the horizon. The upper half obscured behind some serious storm clouds. The strengthening fog among the trees gave her chills. The wolf pack was cunning. They knew that the rifle on her back meant death. They would encircle her and Liva before the attack.

The dusk transformed into darkness as they unloaded the last body. The first pair of yellow eyes stalked them among the gathering mist. The wolf stood between the trees. Lush fir branches hid the queen’s body but exposed her fluffy dog-like face. Her white mask became clear as she trod softly forward. No sound preceded the animal. She floated above the ground. The scenery bathed in dim green and black. Rebane felt something soft brushing against her arm. It was fur.

“Liva, don’t move. Be silent.”

Rebane saw the outlines of the third predator moving behind Liva’s slender back. The wolf’s neck hair seemed spiky against the milky mist. The low growl wasn’t more than a whispered warning. The shadows gathered from different directions.

The queen reached the corpses. She exposed her fangs when her mate approached the kill. The saliva-dripping grimace transformed the beautiful canine face into a mask of the Devil. The alpha female’s ears pressed flat against her head and her eyes glowed with hot Sulphur. Her back arched as she grabbed Grigori’s foot from the pile. She sent his head rolling on the soft ground.

Rebane took Liva by her arm. The women retreated but kept their faces towards the crunching, ripping and swallowing crowd. The animals snapped at each other. Their powerful jaws broke bones to get to the nutritious marrow.”

Rebecka Jäger, The Unholy Warrior.

****

I love wolves, and I’ve never seen any of them as aggressive. However, I chose to add suspense to my chapter and made these wolves a bit unnatural. They are depicted as ferocious- which is entirely against their sociable nature.

Although I often use mother nature as a counterweight in my book, to balance the cruelty of humans, I wanted to depict her as a cruel mistress. That’s why I distorted the image of the wolves. The food chain is cruel.

Studies show that Chernobyl wolves thrive without human presence but they have become vicious among themselves because of nuclear radiation. The scientific fact suited my purpose because my book is post-apocalyptic.

Finally, as Jack London said it:

“The Wild still lingered in him and the wolf in him merely slept.”

Jack London (White Fang, 1906)

The wild still sleeps in us all. We know what to do when we are forced to survive on our own. Our instincts can be counted on. Listen to your inner cave man or woman.

How to Test Your Plot In Its Infancy

So, you have a great story idea, and you want to write a book. Why not test if it’s any good before you spend years working on it?

Key Scenes

Key scenes are pivotal for the development of the plot. They form the foundation of your story. If you’re unsure what the phrase key scene means, or if you want to know which scenes are worthy of the title key, visit C. S. Lakin’s site: https://www.livewritethrive.com/?s=key+scene

She has a multitude of great blog posts and an instructional library of tips. C. S. Lakin also offers online courses and personal coaching.

In my opinion, writers can distinguish essential scenes/chapters by instinct. If you have a significant turning point in your novel, or if your protagonist experiences a major change (a critical moment in the character arc), you have a crucial scene.

But to test a story idea, you don’t have to offer your crash test dummies (family, friends, colleagues or a random online group) one turning point. You can devise a chapter which doesn’t end up in the final book. Just write a snippet which has the following ingredients:

  • Premise:Choose a central place which has a specific aura or feeling which you want in your finished book. How does the plot make you feel? Are you scared, excited, hopeful? That’s what you want your readers to experience.
  • Main characters:I’d include the protagonist (your hero/heroine) and the antagonist (the evil villain) and the significant love interest if you have one.
  • Your protagonist’s goal and the stakes:What does your MC (Main Character) want? What happens if he/she doesn’t succeed? What’s at stake? Goals and stakes are hugely important for any book or movie. I cannot stress this rule enough!
  • Time and era framework:If you write about WWII spies like me, include the 40’s hairdos, clothes, and culture of that specific time and place. What were the gender roles of that era? If you don’t know yet, research some and include your findings in the test scene. Remember that the final product will change many times.If you get the facts wrong at this stage, that’s okay, as long as you convey the crucial ingredients of your story. Most of your readers expect you to know your stuff thoroughly when you publish the final book.

    If you’re writing about aliens at space war, set the scene on an interstellar ship/space colony (these are clichés, I know). Well, you get the idea. Create endoskeletal cyborg suits… and twist those usual clichés of the genre.

  • Genre rules:People who read Tom Clancy or John LeCarre expect certain things. If you’re writing fantasy, you must have magic/ otherworldly creatures/ whatever your mind can create. You know the style of your familiar genre better than me. Think of your favorite books. The idea is to include the trophies of the genre in the test scene.
  • The rest:The rest is whatever you want. Just remember that the test scene must describe the final product.

And please ask your readers to be brutally honest. Otherwise, you won’t know if you have a lump of gold or a piece of shit. If you use dear people as a test audience, they think that they owe you niceness. If you can, use strangers. They’ll say if they’d buy the book or not.

An Example

Of Smokeless Fire is my second novel. What you find below is my test scene which my colleagues- my fellow radiographers at the hospital- were unlucky enough to be exposed to.

Em, the heroine, ended up as a secretary because my test audience thought that she reminded them of Catwoman, who was a secretary by day.

The genre is a spy thriller with a supernatural twist. The place and time are Southern France in the 40’s. My antagonist was called “X” in the test scene because I hadn’t invented a name for him yet.

Of Smokeless Fire

of_smokeless_fireEm- That’s what everyone calls me. Emily Durant is the name of the body I inhabit. My ancient birthname slipped my memory a long time ago.

I know for a fact that each time his massive cast iron gates open for me, and the Auburn wind from the orchard touches my hair, he might be onto me. I might be walking into my death, and we’re not talking about just dying. Getting a bullet to the base of my skull is the easy part. The broad spectrum of Gestapo handling comes before that. I know what awaits me if he decides to turn me in; if his new toy starts boring him.

But knowing what to expect prepares you for nothing. My skin is soft. I’m sensitive to touch. I can’t stand torture. When they strip me naked, hang me up, and start beating me… even the thought is too much to bear. I force the image out of my head because the cab stops. I smell the Provence herbs for the car window is open. My favorite- the lavender- grows outside the protective walls of the mansion.

The house belonged to a prosperous wine merchant who was stupid enough to marry a Jewish woman in secrecy. The blackshirts carried his bruised body out and gave the estate to a high-ranking SS officer.

The new master shall be prepared for me. X always smells of soap and clean clothes. He’s never over the top and uses no aftershave although he can buy the most beautiful commodities.

X hasn’t touched me- not yet.

I pay the driver whose stub of a wife is the official source of rumors in the village of Grimaud. Everyone knows what I’m doing with the enemy, but he doesn’t seem to despise me. He’s is too occupied with my long legs as I step out and straighten my dress. I check my silk stockings, but spot no runs.

The white fur shawl is a bit over the top. It’s summer, but I chose to wear it tonight for luxury. The things he buys for me… they feel jinxed. I am superstitious.

I touch my hair which is done up. The silver comb is still in place but a curl has escaped, and it tickles my neck. Madeleine did a good job though. My hair has always had a will of its own.

My fingers are cold and sweaty when I clutch my handbag.  My heart jumps against my ribcage as the mountain of a guard- Hans- comes to the gates. He adjusts the machine gun strap on his shoulder, and the iron latch lifts with a screech.

I lower my eyes and smile at him as I step into the yard. The corpse of the fox tries to strangle me. The gravel moves like quicksand around my high heels. I couldn’t run if I wanted to.

The Grimaud night wraps me into its caresses. I smell the orange flowers and the jasmine. The air is dark velvet, and the pointy shapes of the cypress trees are like teeth in an open maw.

My feet move on their own until I reach the bottom stair. I shiver in my new evening dress as I stand behind his ornamented door. I cannot bring my hand to grab the brass ring of the door knocker shaped like a lion’s head. The mask of a cold temptress spy slides aside, and Just Emily Durand is left standing on the doorstep of her apparent lover, Stűrmbannfűhrer X. Just Emily feels a pressing urge to urinate.

I never asked for this.

I took a bus home from Nice where I work as a secretary at the Palais de Justice. A knock on my door brought my heart into my throat when I was changing into more comfortable clothing. I knew it wasn’t Gestapo because they would have broken in and waited for me in the darkness of my own kitchen.

Marcel’s men were young and robust.  They were handsome in their woolly scarves and sweaters. The boys, Alexandre and Victor, used the same knock as Felix always did. I offered them some cheap red wine and made sandwiches with black-market butter. They said that they didn’t know where Felix was, but if the Gestapo had taken him, the wave of arrests would start soon. I knew that Felix bought cigarettes on his way back home from work. The landlady had talked to him on the market square. That was two weeks ago. He never came home.

I didn’t promise them anything. I attended the first meeting, and things just started rolling out of control from there. These resistance men said that Marcel- their fearless leader- chose me. He picked me because no German could resist my charms. My hair is naturally curly and has the vivid color of the flame. My skin is fair and freckled. Some decent underwear and tailored clothes enhance my figure which is the shape of an hourglass.

Allah prepared me from the smokeless fire, but I’m a creature of flesh and blood, not of the immaterial spirit. The resistance doesn’t know my real nature. No one does, not even Felix whose bed I’ve shared for two years.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not confident- to the contrary. I’m shy and unsure of myself. I’m only nineteen years old in this body. Seducing is easy. Keeping up the mystery is hard when you get peeled like an onion, one veil of magic at a time.

This Strűrmbannfűhrer X- this pompous man- I met him in the corridor of the Town Hall of Nice. Such a simple coincidence; a young secretary ran into him in a great hurry. She scattered her papers and files all over the place. He was a gentleman. He helped me pick up my things, and he met my emerald eyes which concentrated all my efforts.  X is almost fifty years old and a widow. He fell for me in a split second.

X used to teach history at the Berlin University before the Great War. I’ve read the file which the Red Lily resistance cell has on him. I cannot see him lecturing about history to pimple-faced German youth of the roaring twenties. He’s too dangerous and calculative for that. Maybe the Partei molded him to its own liking; taught him to torture and kill.

To the contrary what people expect of a Djinn, I feel pain. I can be killed. It just takes a specific form of weaponry. All X needs to do, is open the Quran which sleeps on the top shelf of his enormous library, next to the Latin Bible and a compilation of ancient Hindu scriptures. I picture him wearing his slacks with the perfectly straight seams and his pullover. He moves the ladders on wheels to the correct position. He climbs and looks over his broad shoulder just before his fingers touch the flaky leather back of the Quran.

I hold the ladder for him, and I do not avert his eyes.

He knows what I am.

I could tip him over. He would break his back.

An accident.

I banish the thought because I must pretend that I’m a simple gold-digger: a young woman ready to sleep with an older man for money, safety, and black-market items.

Marcel expects results. He wants military intelligence, and he isn’t a patient man. He said that I could bail out at any moment. I don’t believe Marcel. I am like the mouse running through the maze. I run around the next corner, a dead end.

The door opens after the second knock. I step onto the marble floor of the lion’s den. I grab my left hand because it trembles.

May Allah help me!

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