Outer Alliance Pride Day 2009: An excerpt from Mistress of Woodland

As a member of the Outer Alliance, I advocate for queer speculative fiction and those who create, publish and support it, whatever their sexual orientation and gender identity.  I make sure this is reflected in my actions and my work.

I’ve been reading the SF & fantasy for most of my life, thanks to me picking up the habit from my brothers Dave & Mark.  I’ve been reading SF & fantasy by LGBT writers and allies for almost as long, starting in the late 1970s after I came out when I was in college.  From those days I remember  Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, first published in 1975 when I was still in high school; Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground (1978), a utopian classic reflecting the lesbian-feminist separatist politics of the late 1970s; Suzy McKee Charnas’ Holdfast Chronicles — I wrote a review he first two books in this series, Walk to the End of the World (1974) and Motherlines (1978) for Boston’s Gay Community News not long after the latter title came out.

I’ve read plenty of good queer speculative fiction since then, by LGBT and non-LGBT authors alike — people like  C.J. CherryhSamuel R. Delaney, Kelley Eskridge, Nicola Griffith, Ursula K. LeGuin, Elizabeth A. Lynn, Marge Piercy, Melissa Scott, Joan Slonczewski, John Varley— the list goes on.  And should go on. Which is why I joined the Outer Alliance.

Besides which, I write some of this stuff myself. In celebration of the inauguration of the Outer Alliance with Outer Alliance Pride Day 2009, I’m sharing an excerpt from my novel-in-progress Mistress of Woodland.

(And note, as did a friend of mine, the considerable irony of September 1 being both first day of legal same-sex marriage in Vermont, and the beginning of Mayor’s Diversity Month in Anchorage, a city whose mayor last month vetoed a measure which would have provided equal protection from discrimination for LGBT citizens.)

Mistress of Woodland (or MoW as I call it for short) takes its title from Mielikki, a forest spirit of Finnish myth known also as metsolan emäntä, mistress of woodland — and one of MoW’s principal characters.

MoW is the story of Rachel, devastated by the sudden loss of an important relationship. Now she’s trying to make sense of a world that seems to have been thrown into the air and scattered like playing cards in a child’s game of 52-pick-up.

But Rachel isn’t the only person trying to make sense of things. Hidden away in Rachel’s life are Mielikki and two other figures of Finnish myth, Väinämöinen and Lemminkäinen, who decide to send her to the Questors’ Fire, a metaphorical world devised by the mysterious Dice, who may in fact be the Spirit of Luck. By way of the Questors’ Fire, the three Finnish gods hope to lead Rachel back to Henkimaa, her spiritual home.

This excerpt is from a chapter called “Pain Mountain,” in which Rachel’s spiritual self — known by the other questors at the Questors’ Fire as Helvetti — is suffering from the effects of a grievous wound.

* * *

Helvetti fumbled with the buckles of the scabbard and removed it, standing sword and scabbard against the deadfall alongside her staff. Setting up the tent was usually an easy chore, but each step of it now seemed endless — pulling it out of the bag, spreading the tent itself out on the ground, snapping the poles together and kneeling down to push them through the sleeves of the tent. She felt faint and clammy, and she thought her face was wet with sweat more than rain. Her belly — but she tried not to think of it, of how the Holly-demon had driven the sword into her. She forced herself to work on until the tent was up, then the rainfly. She retrieved her staff and sword and knelt down to the door zipper and tensed. What if Holly…? — but no, she imagined the interior as she wanted it to be, and unzipped the door to find it so: her blue and purple sleeping bag, the red and black-checkered wool blanket she liked to take on road-trips, a couple of blue foam camping pads. Safe.

She tossed in the staff and sword and crawled into the tent, staying to the floor so as not to muddy her bed. She lay down, unable for the moment to sit up even to zip the tent shut. Rest, just rest, she thought. She only had to shuck her wet clothes and climb into the sleeping bag and everything would be okay. Raindrops beat a quiet tattoo on the rainfly. She drew up one foot, then the other, unlacing her boots and kicking them off, peeling off her wet socks. The air was cold on her damp wrinkled feet. She unbuckled her belt and unzipped her trousers, pulled her shirt loose of her jeans. It was damp to the touch. It shouldn’t be. It was just the dampness of her fingers, she told herself, she’d been touching so many wet things. But when she brought up her left hand, her fingers were smeared red.

Panicked, she lifted her head and looked down the length of her body as, hands shaking, she pulled up her shirt. “Oh no,” she moaned, “please, no….” Her lower belly, that at Ophelia’s cabin had been as pale and smooth as if no sword had ever touched it, was dark with blood. She dropped her head back and wept in fear. “No, please… I don’t want to die… please, god, please… help me….”

Ai, kiitos,” a voice softly exclaimed, “that’s all the excuse I need!”

With unthinking fear Helvetti scrabbled away from the doorway, grasping wildly for her sword. “No, no, don’t kill me!”

But the woman stooped in the doorway wasn’t the Holly-demon. It was no one Helvetti had seen before.

“It isn’t my plan,” the woman said gravely. She wore faded blue jeans and a forest-green slicker beaded with rain. Her eyes shifted from Helvetti’s face to the sword half-drawn in Helvetti’s one hand, then to her other hand pressed to the wound — holding my guts in, Helvetti thought, feeling how warm her blood was seeping through her fingers.

“I must look at that,” the woman said. She stepped into the tent, and Helvetti kicked off from the floor to scuttle away, but her shoulders and head hit up against the tent wall. She gripped the sword, not yet free of the scabbard, but the woman ignored it and knelt on the muddied floor beside her. “Keep your hand there,” she said, laying her own hand over Helvetti’s bloody one, adding to the pressure. Her accent was peculiar and at once familiar. “No, please don’t struggle — I’m not here to harm you. I’m going to help you.” She had blonde hair, a windchapped face. She turned her head, the thick braid at her back flinging out a spray of moisture. “Kauko!” she shouted.

“Who are you? Where… where in hell did you come from?”

“From the very depths of Helvetti herself… — Kauko!” the woman yelled again, and from outside the tent another voice called, “Täällä!

Missä laulaja?

Lähellä. Hetkinen, haen hänet.

There was the woman’s face again, wide and strong, cheeks ruddy with the outdoors. “Kauko’s fetching the Singer. You’re bleeding overmuch, but he’ll fix you.” She lay a cool hand on Helvetti’s forehead. “Clammy. You’re pale. Going into shock, I think.” Her hand was steadying, calming. The terror was still there, but distant. “You do like a close call, don’t you? But you called me in time, just in time –”

“Called…you…?” Helvetti’s voice seemed to come from somewhere remote. Somewhere else far away her fingers released the sword.

“You called me, yes. ‘Please, god, please,’ you said. So here I am. Hmm — I’ve got to get these wet clothes off you, get you warm… but it’s not good to move you….”

“You’re… god?”

“Well, I’m not Ukko, or one of those from your Bible, and I’m not the Cosmic Egg. But you’re the one who says god is the universe and everything in it, so I’m close enough, eh? Tietysti! — I can poof as well as you, now, can’t I? That’s how I’ll move you.”

The woman’s eyes were almost oriental, the hint of what might have been epicanthic folds at their inner corners, crow’s feet at the outer. They were grey eyes. Warm. Warm, like her hands were now on Helvetti’s forehead, on Helvetti’s hand still held against the bleeding wound, far far away, warm like her voice chanting something low under her breath. Warm; but there was still the cold on Helvetti’s legs and feet from chill air and wet trousers.

Then a moment of strangeness, a shift, and the warm satiny feel of her sleeping bag against her skin, the bag zipped half down as Mielikki — yes, it must be Mielikki, finally Mielikki — leaned into her belly, the pressure of her hands holding back the blood, her grey eyes looking down on Helvetti, staving off fear.

Ft. Richardson woods, on the eastern edge of Anchorage -- where much of MoW takes place

Ft. Richardson woods, on the eastern edge of Anchorage — where much of MoW is set.

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