Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

When Nellie met Excalibur

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October 12th:Twelfth Post

Today I thought I'd introduce you to another member of Kerfuffle, Sherman's improvising troupe-mate, Nellie Wolfe. Named after my grandmother and my favourite writer, Thomas Wolfe, she's 29, disabled, unmarried, pregnant with twins and plotting revenge with the aid a talking sword. I hope you enjoy the first draft of the opening scene of the novel.

Day One: Thursday, June 24, 2010, wherein roles are established and offers made
Enter Player One: NELLIE WOLFE, age 29, museum docent and founding member of Kerfuffle

“Behold the once and future sting! Take me up; cast me away!”

These same dozen words, both pun and proclamation, declaim nonstop for her entire shift. An unremitting broadsword broadcast. In gift and dare, a tease. A gauntlet thrown down.

“You’re quite the cut up,” Nellie finally strikes back. “A rapier wit, even for a sword.”

Thus engaged, the blade finds the full tang of its tongue.

“List close, my fecund lady fair, I would spin you a tale. A Camelot of mists and spires, of knights so bold and ladies bolder. I’d sing with the soft keen of a bard of honour won on righteous battlefields, where the hacking of my kind left naught but the deserving to bleed to death and most of your kind would smile and sigh. But not you, my blossoming owl. Like the wise Morgana, scars give you good reason to distrust pretty things. To sugar this tale in romance would be a lie and, in the battle before us, the one move worse than a parry – a feint. Instead, milady, I’ll pin the bloody moral of the tale here in my en garde for your regard in vernacular yours, not mine, to ensure its hearing: Arthur was an asshole; Gwen was a whore; Lancelot a pedophile and Merlin a swindler in a stolen hat. But Mordred, my sweet Mordred, now there was magic! There was a boy worth stabbing.”

Nellie glances over at Max, on guard but not as if the museum needs one. Illicit iPod on, back turned and hands clasped behind it, his fingers snap beat as he rocks on his heels. It’s closing time, 5:30 p.m. To be on time for practice, she needs to leave now. Instead she leans low, presses her ear to the Plexiglas case, the height of a kitchen table and the shape of Snow White’s coffin. It houses a battered weapon in a velvet shroud, a sleeper that unlike Ms. White appears not to need a princely kiss to awaken. Exhibit #A2886: Sword, Roman Britain, circa 5th Century, CE.

Apparently, a sword that still sings. A blade that still qualifies as sharp.

“Mine won’t be the way you’ve heard our tales, my doubling dove, but all those you’ve heard from so far had a tongue tied to the telling. Beware soft words from the tongues of soft beings. Mine is forged in fire. It pierces flesh. By flame and by fiber, I thrust always and straight to point.” The sword pauses. Does she really hear it sigh? “Unlike yon sallow squires approaching your sinister side, milady, such bit-faced boys as from this encased vantage I have the sorrow to espy daily.”

Nellie smiles and re-checks Max, busy glaring at a gaggle of spiky-faced teens. Lugging knapsacks and clutching wrinkled Credit Completion sheets, they shuffle towards the exit in skater wear, stopping repeatedly to push hair aside to read from, or text on, their phones.

The sword groans. “My dearest doubly-portending one, may your true someday babes be spared such afflictions! Yon boys with bits are more broken than the oldest of swayback nags. Their condition is as delicate as yours, n’est pas? While they could perhaps be ridden, lacking intercession of the goddess, they cannot themselves heft heavy metal to save their magnificently pierced lives!”

Only years of training give Nellie the skill to stifle a laugh. She taps the case to divert the sound of an almost giggle. “Well, Mr. Sword, you cut quite the triple threat. It takes some pretty fine acting to sing the modernity blues while tap dancing around what you so euphemistically call my ‘delicate condition.’ So take my point. How on earth do you know the truth about these twins?”

“As your true Excalibur, milady, I humbly repeat myself: behold the once and future sting! It has always been thus, has it not, that issue of a man’s sting may serve fittingly to sting the stinger?”

Nellie jerks upright and tugs her navy docent’s blazer back over her burgeoning belly. “I beg your pardon?”

“And I beg your indulgence before my next words, milady, as my point like my tongue is soiled. Having passed through the rough and tarnishing hands of men, I find myself in your face mirrored. Each of us, if reflection be true, no longer pure.”

Nellie snorts and steps away. The sword bends quickly. “No offence, my triple-hearted one! I tell you none offered; please tell me none taken?” Nellie leans back in. “I offer this comparison between us only as evident, as something that, being verdant and visible, ascribes no shame to you, only to the usury men. For little has changed. In both our times, when men think with their third leg, they sport four--as either kine or swine.”

“Now you’re talking!” Nellie whispers, enjoying the idiocy of the obvious.

“But, thank the goodness of the goddess, I am neither mortal nor a human male. So my metal rings true. And for more than riposte and repartee. By the Lady, I am sent to many new worlds, but tasked each time with one shining quest alone. You have one, do you not? A boy worth stabbing?”

“Damn straight!” When that produces a second concerned glance from Max, she waves a not-to-worry hand in his direction, turns away and grins. Improv lives! Improv lives everywhere. Even here, in a place as staid and stuffy as any on earth. And when the universe offers you a classic improv moment, you must always say thank you. She pats the case. “Merci, mon ami du Lac!”

So now she has three choices. To keep both feet in Plodding World, a.k.a. reality, she should block and deny, abjure her own silliness, pick up said feet and walk telling herself she heard nothing but hormones. Or, to keep at least one foot grounded, she should wimp and waffle, admit to hearing the sword but not fully accept its offer, belittle it, make a joke of it, tell her troupe at practice that maybe she’s a little crazy, but that talking sword is truly nuts. “Such delusions of grandeur!” she could wink at them. “What kind of sick, messed up, warped old piece of scrappy metal proclaims itself Excalibur and has the gall to pun on Arthur, the once and future king! Sheesh!”

Or, she can play. She can open her heart and play. Empower her own failing feet. Set so-called adult judgment aside. Put what passes for reality on a shelf marked boring and inadequate, build her own platform and run with new soles into Improv World. It’s easy. All she has to do is accept the gift of a talking sword and simply say “yes” to the drama. In Improv World, she and the chatty Mr. Ex are both as sane as sidewalks. He’s a classic offer, one no sane improviser would ever refuse. She tilts her head, mimes a cigarette, gestures a shrug at all the other display cases and speaks from the side of her mouth, the requisite Casablanca pose for any improvisation of Bogie.

“And so Mr. Blade, of all the bin joints, in all the world, you whack into mine.”

If a sword can smirk, this one does. “Here’s lancing at you, milady!”

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is the author of the novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books). She lives in Toronto.

Go to Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s Author Page