Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Tribute to Tigran and Pompom

The life of a graduate student is arduous and stressful. I worked ceaselessly, and sometimes I even envied the laborers who worked on the Harvard grounds. A graduate student has no holidays, no weekends. The responsibility to study and to excel blots out all else in life. At least that’s how it is for many a student. I was feeling as if I had no friends and no life, when a tiny, tawny creature entered my life.

A neighbor, who must have been in his eighties, had a Lhasa Apso female and a Pomeranian dog. The male was at least eighteen years old at the time, so the man thought it impossible for him to breed, but he did.

The man offered me a tiny female puppy. I didn’t have the time, but I took her anyway. I named her Tigran. She loved me. She waited for me to come home everyday, and cried out in bliss when she saw me. I fell in love. I carried her wherever I went, whenever I could. She slept next to my face and licked me awake in the morning. One day, when she was a puppy, I felt her tongue and became convinced that she had a fever. I rushed her to the vet, and there I learned that dogs have a higher temperature than humans.

I read every book I could get my hands on, learning passionately about dogs. I taught her how to give me her paw for a treat. Then I taught her how to give me two paws. I was so foolishly proud that I brought her to my advising professors to show off her skills.

As she grew, she became ugly and lanky. I wanted her to have long hair like the Lhasas in the books I read. Her light golden blonde hair stood out straight, but I loved her all the same. Little did I know that in three years, she would be the picture of Lhasa perfection, although she was a half-breed. Her hair was magnificent, and I took altogether too many pictures of her.

One day, while returning from study, I imagined how hopeless I would be if she ever left me. I cried, hiding my face from people.

When Tigran was two years old, the elderly man next door had another brood of puppies from Tigran’s mother and father. I wanted one, but the man refused. He was selling them to a pet store. On the day after Christmas, I heard a knock at the door. I opened it to find a crumpled paper sack containing a tiny soiled puppy. Apparently, one of the puppies had become gravely ill, and the man had left it there. As it was below zero that day, it was a good thing I was home. Many vet visits later, Pompom, Tigran’s brother, became part of our household. He grew up to look like an elegant red Pomeranian, but his flopping ears gave his Lhasa half away.

He was so tiny that I used to keep him in the pocket of my coat. He needed a lot of attention, so I used to smuggle him into the huge Harvard library in my pocket. I obtained a box for him, and I used a piece of pine branch to entertain him as I studied. I would wave it and he would chase it like a kitten. Of course, I stayed in a deserted area, not wanting to be kicked out of the library. As he grew older, he began to leap out of his little box to confront any intruders. Soon he barked at people, and I knew his Harvard library days were over.

When I walked them in Cambridge, they looked like two matched ponies, although they were so different. Tigran had long, blonde hair and a rich tail she carried over her back, while Pompom was so red, with the thick hair a show Pomeranian would envy. They were alike in all other respects. They were the same sizes, and their faces were remarkably similar. They had huge, soulful brown eyes and similar voices.

These two saintly souls supported me in the long, cold evenings and lonely nights I spent during my graduate student days. When we got our Ph.D. they were there to celebrate and to take those first, hesitant steps into what people call the “real world.” They were there through the trying days of work, and they greeted me everyday with happiness and unflagging love.

We had birthday parties for them, and opened many gifts of toys and bones.

One day, when she was thirteen-years-old, my lovely Tigran dragged the bed I had gotten her for Christmas off the low shelf where it was kept. She wanted to be held. Her little soul departed as I cried and prayed to the gods to keep her well for me. The ancient texts of which I was now a scholar say that if you feed a dog with love every day that it will wait for you by the Bridge all souls must pass over. It will greet you and lead you across, even if you have been a little sinful. I prayed that she would be there for my poor, wretched soul. I missed her so much that I could only weep, while Pompom did his best to comfort me.

We lived together, Pompom and I, and I resolved that I would give him all the love I wanted to give Tigran. Pompom was so special. He loved sweets. He would watch me with great attention for any sign that I might sneak a bit of candy or nuts. He liked Jordan almonds, but he would wait for me to suck the candy halfway, then it was good for him. Similarly, he liked Raisinettes, but they had to be from my mouth. He had his own seatbelt, and we would travel long hours. He hated driving, except that he would be excited when we stopped to pee and get gas. He always knew they sold beef jerky at the gas station.

He was my comfort for the next two years, but then he had a seizure. I was terrified, but although the vet said he had to be put to sleep, I nursed him back, feeding him with an eyedropper and holding his weak body as he tried to walk. He recovered and I was so happy. For the next year he had a few fits, but he seemed happy. I delighted that he was able to be his sassy self, barking and kicking his back legs at me when annoyed or just happy.

On the night before Easter, the epilepsy returned with a vengeance. He began to cry loudly. I roused the vet and we sat over him for a few hours until the medicine began to work. On Easter morning, he began to cry again. I rushed him to the vet, who told me there was nothing more he could do. I said goodbye to the friend who had shared so much of my life with me. I put him in his usual seat and petted his velvety ears as we drove home one last time. My heart broke as I picked out some fine cloths and made a shroud for him. He was fifteen. I buried him next to Tigran. Now both my angels are in heaven, and I live with the hope that they will be there at that fabled Bridge, wagging their bushy tails in greeting. Until then, I remember you, my dear friends.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Historical Fiction or Fantasy? Herodotus: the Father of Lies

Some of my books are hard to classify. The Fire Series are not entirely what one might call historical fiction, and not totally fantasy either. They are set in the world Herodotus, born c. 490 BCE, the Greek historian describes as Scythia and ancient Persia. He describes Scythia as a wild place dominated by equally wild horsemen. These tribes traveled in wagons and on horseback. They were impossible to conquer because they knew the wild lands and could hide, blending into the landscape. The Persians tried, with their huge armies, to subdue the people, but they never could.

The Paralatae tribe, to which the royal brothers Zohak and Atar belong, was described as being a “royal” Scythian tribe, the descendants of the great mythical king Colaxais. Herodotus describes the Scythians as very strange because men and women enjoy equality, something very rare in his day.

Some of their habits are quite interesting. For example, they made cups out of the skulls of their defeated enemies, coating them with gold. They also made nice cloaks out of the scalps of their enemies. A warrior was very proud of such a cloak, and it grew in size as he or she fought and defeated the enemies, which were many. Enemies could be anyone they happened to meet.

In the second part of my “Fire Series,” King Melik is murdered. The ritual I describe is derived from Herodotus’ account. When a king or family member with a high standing died, a herd animal was slaughtered and its raw flesh was mixed with that of the dead human. This was passed around in a pot, and each member of the tribe would eat some of the raw flesh. The object was to recycle the person’s power back into the remaining people of the tribe.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Demon of Death

As I am a historian of ancient cultures, I know the intricacies of the belief systems too. In the Sorcerer’s Secret, which was set in ancient Persia, I found it difficult to convey the ordinariness of the belief in the Demon of Death. People believed that when a person died, a demon immediately possessed the body. The demon was stronger in relation to how good the person had been in life. In other words, the more virtuous a person, the stronger the demon. Why? The Avesta, the Zoroastrian scripture explains that the demons can’t attack a good person while he or she is alive. They want a person’s soul, but at the time of death, a good person is taken to Heaven. When the demons eagerly enter the body, they find it empty, and like an enemy army that lays siege to a city and then finds that the king has escaped, they rage about in anger. When the demons enter the body of a bad person, they find the soul, the “king,” and they are satisfied.
Dead bodies were thought to be teeming with evil spirits. The Demon of Death was so powerful that it could enter the body of a living person who approached or touched a dead body. The only way to stop it was by the use of specially trained dogs. Dogs had the power to dispel the demon by their vision. This was called “sag-did,” being seen by a dog. Persians believed that dogs had an extra set of eyes by which they could see demons and cast them out. I will write more about dogs later.
The body thus teeming with evil, could not be buried into the earth, or burned by fire, as these were holy elements. Instead, they were placed on the “Towers of Silence,” or daxmas, elevated platforms where hundreds of vultures waited to devour the flesh of the dead. This could be accomplished in a matter of minutes, depending on the number of birds. Being accustomed to feedings of human flesh, these birds waited expectantly. I have actually seen this sight and believe me, it was quite like I described it in my book. Again, truth can be stranger than fiction.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Writing Hints for Authors—Creating a Believable Character

An author is an observant person. How does one create a believable character? By observation! I keep a notebook with me at all times, although it is advisable to wait to jot down personality quirks one sees. In my new book, Impossible Promise, the character Roscoe is a man who is obese, but he sees himself as “big.” Most women admit to being overweight, even when they aren’t. Not so with the bulk of men (a good pun as well). In one scene, Roscoe contemplates his lunch. He has eaten several sandwiches, Twinkies, a diet cola, and lastly, he has added yogurt. Why? Because a woman at work said that she eats yogurt to lose weight. Roscoe doesn’t get it. Believe it or not, I actually heard a man say this, and sure enough, I jotted it down for future use.
Another character in the same book argues that a two-year degree is an “undergraduate” degree. He has applied for a job, thinking he has the qualification because, as everybody knows, if you didn’t finish the four-year degree, it is an undergraduate degree. If you finish the four years, then you graduate, making your degree a graduate degree. Folks, I simply could not make that up. Yes, I heard this from a hapless interviewee.
I also jot down the endless Mississippi country expressions, such as one I used in Impossible Promise. I heard a man at the feed store comment about a politician, “He’s slimier than two eels fucking in a bucket of snot.” Ugh! What a priceless image.
Even the way people move is important. How do they carry themselves? Another thing to note is the way a place looks. It is important to describe a place realistically, which is easier to do if you can remember details. Details make a scene real to the reader.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Pterodactyls, Bird-Insect Matings, and Imagination

People often ask me how I come up with stories. I have thought about it, and perhaps the most important thing is to be able to imagine. People say that when one grows up, the power to imagine goes away. That isn’t always true. I don’t know if one has to cultivate imagination, or if it comes to some. Maybe it is that imagination isn’t the issue. It may be the ability to see alternate worlds.

Once as I walked around my garden in March, the azaleas were in full bloom. It is a wonderful Mississippi sight. I stood still so that the hummingbirds flew madly about me, drinking the nectar of the cup shaped blossoms. Suddenly I saw a hummingbird that was different. Instead of a long, thin beak, it had a thread-like protuberance that curled at the end. Instead of feathers, it had an odd sort of fur. I watched it as it flew with the other hummingbirds. It hovered, as they did, and it was then that I noticed that unlike the hummingbirds, it had not two legs, but six or so. I stared speechless for a long time, then I called my friend.

“Yes, I saw it up close. It had to be a cross between an insect and a bird. Uh…yeah, but that’s what I saw. Maybe it is one of those creatures we simply haven’t discovered yet…No, damn it! It’s only ten o’clock. I haven’t been drinking. I saw what I saw. Fine, well, I just thought you’d like to know.” That was my side of the call.

That wasn’t the last creature I saw that was weird. One day. While walking deep in the woods, I heard a horrible screech. From the ground, a strange creature reared up, flapping leathery wings. It was fleshy and had a beak too big for its size. It was indeed, a young Pterodactyl, although my friend swore that it had to be a nestling buzzard. He is no fun at all, but again, I saw what I saw.

When I write, I figure I can use these experiences. At least nobody will say I’m crazy, since after all, it is supposed to be fiction. But dear readers, now you know that the truth is stranger than fiction. Next time I might tell you about the foxfire left by aliens (I did see their hovering ship).

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