Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Sample of the first draft

I just finished reading Stephen King's On Writing. In it, he advises not to let anyone see the work in progress until its finished. That book was published eleven years ago, when the publishing industy still flourished and the e-Book was not even a blip on the radar screen. Given the explosion of Kindles, Sony readers and the like, that day is over, for better or worse. Because of the omnipresent Internet, authors and readers can have a closer relationship through blogging, webpostings and e-mail. E-publishing, as an alternative to traditional publishing, is gaining traction. Why else would J.K. Rowlings have fired her publisher? In Hemingway's day, that would have been unheard of (so would ending a sentence with a preposition).

Below is how The Death of the White Rose, first draft starts. Let me know what you think:

The Great Day

Hurrah for revolution and more cannon-shot!

A beggar upon horseback lashes a beggar on foot.

Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again!

The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on.

By William Butler Yeats

Chapter 1

The Beautiful Island

            Eighteen Lightning class sloops cut through the waves of Havana Bay, like a school of fish, first all in one direction and then, in a flash of billowing sail, another, as each rounded a racing buoy. It was the first race of the ‘58 season, and each boat was skippered by members of the Havana Yacht Club. The sailors were haute bourgeois, the upper crust of Havana high society. Except for one. A priest—Father Pedro Villanueva. Thirty-four years old and dressed in madras swim shorts and HYC polo shirt, he looked more like an off duty lawyer than parish priest. As the boat hiked in a close reach, he leaned all of his six foot frame out as far as he could to counterbalance.

As he shoved the tiller to port and started his homeward tack, Pedro could see the windows of the yacht club sparkling with the reflection of the sky, a pink and orange glow from the setting sun. With the breeze steady at 12 knots, he knew he would make it back to the club before dark. He was two lengths behind the lead boat, but the finish line was too close for him to overtake the leader. He’d have to settle for second.

            Pedro’s family had been members of the club since the 30s. It was the most chic of the elite clubs that dominated Havana’s social life, and its members prided themselves that even Batista, now dictator, did not qualify as a member. The club was for-whites-only, and Batista, part Indian, white and Chinese, lacked the necessary pedigree. Pedro’s family defrayed his dues, as his stipend from the archdiocese did not begin to cover his cost of living, let alone a yacht club membership.

     That Pedro Villanueva would become a priest came as no surprise to anyone in his family. His father and mother had always planned for their first born child, Tomas, to follow in his father’s profession--medicine. Dr. Hugo Villanueva was an obstetrician with a busy practice in Havana. From the time Tomas was a child, his father pushed him toward the goal of someday joining the practice. Alberto, the second born, was destined to be a lawyer, the profession of his maternal grandfather. That left the church for Pedro, child number three. Twice a week, Pedro's mother went to the Iglesia del Carmen for mass, praying for her children, but most of all, praying that Pedro would be her gift to God for all that He had given her. 

For his part, Pedro had no interest in the church. He was always the one who would not finish his homework, was late to class, talked too loudly or giggled too much at the wrong time. He always seemed to provoke the professors at the Belen School, in whatever classroom he found himself in. Ramon de la Vega, the assistant director of Belen, called Pedro’s mother at least once a month to report on his most recent transgressions. The calls were inevitably followed by an appointment between Pedro and his father’s belt, but nothing seemed to curb his enthusiasm for getting into mischief.

Sailing out of the Havana Yacht Club beyond the canon of La Cabaña fortress, he found the world was fresh and full of a natural rhythm. Seabirds dove for fish, and dolphins playfully raced alongside his sailboat. There was peace to be enjoyed there that was absent in the final dark days of Batista, when terrorist bombs would explode at movie theaters, and the news was packed with stories of revolution and death. He was also away from his mother, who constantly reminded him about how proud she was of him for joining the priesthood. Best of all, he was away from the church which he had come to regard as his soul’s prison. Out on the blue-green expanse of water the breeze blew steady and he did not have to think about the worries of his every day world. Prior to 1958, sailing was an activity he did only for the pure fun of it. He had been a priest for almost 10 years, and the weekly Saturday voyages were as a regular part of his routine as officiating at mass at the Iglesia del Espíritu Santo. As Batista grasped to hold on to power, and the revolution brewed in the distant mountains, his sailing became an escape from the darkness of the political turmoil that was engulfing his homeland. 

When he took the position as a priest at Iglesia del Espíritu Santo, his parents’ dreams for him seemed to be fulfilled. It was the oldest church in Cuba, dating to the 1630s. While an integral part of Havana’s religious life, it had from time to time ventured into politics, receiving a royal prerogative from King Charles III to grant political asylum to anyone oppressed by the local government. When he first learned of the church’s history with asylum, Pedro thought it an anecdote that was historically interesting, but of no significance modernly. Cuba had long ago left the control of the mother country, and the Spanish king’s decree appeared to be no less an artifact than the painting of the seated Christ adorning the wall to the altar’s right. Certainly, as a priest in Batista’s Cuba, where despite occasional revolutionary turmoil and the ominous headlines, he had never even thought of offering a parishioner asylum; most of them seemed more concerned with just getting by at home and following the Catholic cycle at church. The store keepers, fishermen, and clerks did not come to church to discuss the student rebellions, or the Castro brothers’ July 26th movement, or the corruption of the Batista government. Political asylum was an arcane issue, not a reality in his experience. It never dawned on him that history might come full circle and entangle him in the granting of asylum.

Pedro had eventually succumbed to his mother’s entreaties to enter the priesthood, but not without a struggle. He was not exactly a stranger to romance, and the concept of forever celibacy weighed heavily on his mind. He had had more than a few girl friends in college, and the thought of not having the intimacy of a woman for the rest of his life troubled him. He discussed this with his own priest, Father Domingo, whom he had known since childhood. Domingo always looked like he needed a shave. He was short and round and in the tropical heat of Cuba, he perpetually wiped the sweat from his forehead. Once Pedro had seen him fall asleep during mass, and it was only because the music director walked over and “accidentally” stepped on his foot that Domingo regained consciousness. Although not much to look at, Domingo had a good heart and was always very kind to Pedro. He told him that the priesthood was a calling. He believed the reason priests could not marry is that the Church wanted its priests to love everyone, not just one woman and the children she might bear. By devoting himself to the Church, a priest could show the love of Jesus to everyone in the parish. Domingo advised Pedro to listen to his inner self and he would make the right decision.

Pedro tried desperately to hear. He was aware of his privileged youth, and he felt that it was his turn to do what he could for those who were not children of wealth. While there was a growing middle class under Batista, there were still masses of the poor who needed help. He finally decided that there was nothing compelling commanding his attention to do something else, he would try to see where the seminary might lead.

After entering the priesthood, he was able to use his social connections to the upper class world of his parents to support his various causes. The club members purchased many a raffle ticket at his request or sent skilled workers to fix a leaking roof or broken boiler. For this the Havana Yacht Club was a great benefit. The only hitch was that its whites-only admission policy gnawed at him. He had brought the matter up to his parents, who urged him to keep such concerns to himself. Try as he might, he could not erase his awareness of the dissonance between the brotherhood of man that he preached at church, and the symbolism of his being a member of a segregated yacht club.

He had been a priest ten years, but it seemed that recently, as he looked back at his life on the pulpit, he realized that he had been unable to make but a small ripple in the ocean of turmoil that most in his parish faced. With each passing month, the calling, for which Father Domingo had told him to listen, seemed to fade to a whisper. When he looked in the mirror, he was not happy with what he saw. In his reflection he saw someone ill at ease. He felt like a fish out of water when he officiated at mass. This was not him; he performed the service precisely the way he was taught, and it was the same every time he did it. Sometimes there were different faces accepting the Eucharist, but the act of sanctification had become routine, practiced and done completely without thought. The spiritual life of the church did not comfort him the way it had at the beginning of his carrer. Everywhere, new casinos and clubs were opening. Some had Hollywood stars standing at the entrance greeting the public. Others offered live sex shows. The sensuality of the modern Havana made him literally hot under the collar.

While he felt different from how he thought priests should feel about his existence as a parish priest, he also sensed that he didn’t fit in outside either. At the club he felt uncomfortable around the others, including his own family. And oh those beautiful women sparkling in the candle light in the club dining room, he was not sure how to talk to them. His tongue thickened when one came near. He stammered, not being able to get his words out.

After going to the locker room to shower and change after the race, he walked into the main dining room to find his parent’s table. His casual attire from the race had been replaced by his priest’s white collar and black tunic. His only affectation was a brilliantly shiny gold cross hanging from a chain around his neck and his Brylcreemed hair parted sharply to the side, with every shiny follicle firmly in place. His brother, Alberto, was there with his wife. Pedro arrived just as the canon fired from La Cabaña across the Bay. The roar was enormous and was an event signaling 9 p.m. each night since the 18th century. He saw his family on the other side of the dance floor and began to make his way to them. His parents, looking like well dressed-mannequins from El Encanto department store, the Saks Fifth Avenue of Havana, were seated at a large round table. Alberto was wearing a tuxedo, and his wife, Alejandra, was wearing a strapless dress which left little to the imagination. As Pedro walked, he focused on a woman dancing a Tango in the center of the floor.

Her every movement was just a little more languid than that of the other women on the floor. Her arm would stretch just a little further down her leg, she arched her back just a hair more exaggerated, her glance just slightly chillier than the others dancing beside her. Soon, the other dancers wandered to the side of the dance floor and stood facing toward the voluptuous dancer and her partner, admiring every sensual move that they made.

Pedro stared at the gyrating woman on the dance floor and smiled. Women can be so beautiful, he thought. He asked Alberto if he knew who this creature was and received a précis on his vision. Vilma Espin was the daughter of Jose Espin, a Bacardi lawyer and had attended MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She spoke English fluently and moved about Cuban high society with ease. Pedro was very taken by her energy and wavy brunette hair. She obviously had the attention of most of the men in the ballroom. Alberto had assisted her father with some legal matters regarding a distillery owned by Bacardi. Vilma held a degree in chemical engineering, but did not look in any way like a scientist to Pedro. Rather, as she tangoed across the floor, he was reminded of a modern day Carmen. All she lacked was a rose in her mouth.

At Pedro’s request, Alberto stood up and waylaid Vilma when she walked by their table, to make an introduction. “Your dancing was exquisite,” Pedro said, as she extended her hand in greeting. She smiled broadly at the praise. As she shook Pedro’s hand with her right, she draped her left hand on his shoulder. As they talked, she played delicately with his collar, as if she were a moth drawn to a light. Rather than chasten, it appeared to inspire her sensuality. Pedro retreated and moved a step back, forcing her hand to drop away.

“Now Father, don’t be so shy,” she teased. Pedro’s face reddened. “I’ve embarrassed you, I am sorry,” she said.

“I am not used to beautiful women being so close to me,” Pedro said. Perspiration formed on his forehead and above his upper lip.

“You may be a priest, but you are still a man, no?” asked Vilma. “I saw you out there racing today. You nearly won!”

Pedro’s face was now crimson.

Her laughter was infectious. “Oh listen to me. There I go again, I am embarrassing you,” said Vilma. “I am sorry.” Another couple jostled its way onto the dance floor behind her, pushing Vilma forward, pressing up against Pedro’s chest. Pedro was flummoxed. Their brief collision came to an abrupt end when a uniformed army officer, who had been obviously drinking, staggered over and put his arm around her.

“Here you are, Chiquita! Baring your soul to the priest?” he said. “Padre, you better think up a long list of penances to expiate Vilma’s soul.”

The officer guided Vilma onto the dance floor. Pedro sat down and grabbed his drink. The trumpets growled, and the bongos beat out a distinctive rhythm; the two got lost in a crowd of cha-cha dancers and a party that would last until the small hours of the morning. Pedro, as always, went home to his church alone.


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