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Monday, September 20, 2010

An Uncommon Family, chapter 2

Here is chapter 2 of my work progress, which introduces the second of the three main characters in "An Uncommon Family." Comments and feedback appreciated!

Chapter 2


It was quiet now, except for the chirping of crickets and the occasional hoot of the night owl in the forest near Anna’s home. It was still warm after the hot summer day. Anna had opened all the windows, hoping for a cooling breeze. It had been an unusually hot summer in a country, which wasn’t exactly known for its heat waves. The strong pungent scent of basil in between the tomatoe plants reminded Anna of her gardening chores she kept putting off because of the heat.
     After her turbulent day in the city, Karla had finally fallen asleep. Anna left the bedroom door open, in case the child had another one her nightmares.
     It was always the same: screaming for her mother, followed by desperate crying. When Anna woke her up, Karla was distraught. She mentioned fire, flames, red paint, which Anna assumed was blood. She asked for her mother, then remembered that she was gone. She cried herself to sleep in Anna’s arms. Long after Karla had fallen back to sleep, Anna sat in the living-room, weeping quietly into the night, mourning her dead mother and sister, grieving for Karla, whose happiness had been shattered within a few seconds.
     In the morning, Karla didn’t remember the nightmare. When Anna asked her about it, she just shook her head. She also couldn’t remember the actual accident.
     The day Anna received the ominous phone call was still etched into her mind. The solemn voice of the police officer telling her that her mother and sister had been killed during a frontal collision with a drunk driver. “A child was in the back-seat in her booster. She had a shock but she’s okay. We found your address in one of the women’s purses. We are so sorry but we need someone to identify them.”
     For days and nights afterwards, Anna saw the mangled bodies lying on the gurney and the pale face of her little niece, whose normally vivid large dark eyes now stared at her with an empty look.
     At first, Karla didn’t cry and refused to talk. Anna worried herself sick, thinking the accident had caused the child to become mute. After about a week, Karla woke up at night, screaming and calling for her mother for the first time. It was as if a glacier of frozen grief had thawed and a river of tears was flooding her. She cried for a long time. All Anna could do was hold her and let her empty herself. She was relieved though. The tears were a welcome change from the stoic, frozen silence.

* * *

     It was raining during the funeral. Anna’s sister and mother had lived in the Italian part of Switzerland and were buried in a small cemetery at the beginning of the Maggia Valley. Piles of dark clouds covered the tops of the mountains. Gusts of wind blew through the trees scattering the yellow leaves and hurling them across the street. It smelled of wet grass, of chrysanthemums, the sweet-rotten aroma of fall.
     Anna was shaking hands with the people attending the funeral, who murmured their condolences. A group of them had gathered in front of the church where the memorial service took place.
     Before the ceremony, Anna and Karla went inside the small chapel where the bodies were lying. They were standing in front of the open caskets paying their last respects. Anna’s mother and sister looked rosy and peaceful in the suffused light of the candles which were placed around the coffins. Nobody would have been able to tell that they had been injured. It was silent in the small cool room. The flames of the candles flickered in the occasional draft blowing in from the outside, creating an otherworldly feeling. A faint whiff of incense hovered in the room. Anna held Karla's small trembling hand. Don't leave me, the child’s eyes begged. Anna, flooded by love and pity, pressed Karla against her.
     “Don't they look peaceful,” Anna whispered.
     Karla nodded.
     Like porcelain dolls or empty shells, Anna thought.
     During the service, Anna, Karla, and Lena, a close friend of Karla’s mother, sat in the front row in the small local church. Flowers and candles on the altar gave the place an almost festive feeling. The minister, a young woman who had been a friend of the family, delivered a very personal sermon.
     After the ceremony, friends and the few relatives met at a restaurant nearby for lunch. The rain had stopped and the sun was penetrating the receding clouds. The ground was strewn with yellow and red leaves.
     “It's definitely fall,” Anna said. “Look at the colorful leaves.”
     Karla nodded. “I wish Mama could see them.” Her eyes welled up.
     “Oh, Karla, I know. She’d love the colors.”
     “Once, Mama is in Heaven, do you think she can see us?”
     “I bet she can.” Anna didn’t have the heart to disappoint Karla. “But, let’s go inside. The others are waiting. I bet you’re hungry.” Karla sighed and nodded.
     The mood in the restaurant was somber at first, but after a while, the food and wine began to warm the hearts of the grieving people. Stories about the past circulated. Friends offered their help. “Give us a call if you need anything.”
     “Thank you, I'll be alright,” Anna kept assuring them, not knowing if that was true or not. She was grateful for their concern but was getting tired and longed to be alone.
     “I need to leave. I have a three-hour drive to Zurich ahead of me.”
     She said goodbye to Karla, who was going to stay with Lena for a few days, so Anna had time to prepare before Karla moved in with her. Lena, who had babysat Karla many times and had taken care of her right after the accident, had offered to keep Karla for a while longer. When Anna bent down to kiss Karla goodbye, she saw fear in her eyes.
     Lena took the child into her arms. “Don't worry. Anna will be back soon. You have to finish kindergarten together with your friends. And Susie is waiting for you.” Lena was referring to her cat.
     “Can I take Susie with me?” Karla brushed a tear away.
     “Tell you what,” Lena said. “The next time Susie has kittens, you can have one . . . if Anna agrees. Sorry, Anna, I guess I should’ve asked you first.”
     “Yes, of course you can have a kitty.” Anna was relieved to see Karla’s face light up again.

* * *

     Driving back to Zurich, Anna was thinking of Karla, wondering if she should have taken her with her right away. She had thought that Karla would feel more comfortable with Lena in the familiar environment for a while longer. But that was only half the truth. Leaving her with Lena gave Anna a few days reprieve to get her strength back before she took on the responsibility of being Karla’s guardian.
     She was tired and had a hard time keeping her eyes open and her focus on the road. In Fluelen, a small town at the north end of St. Gotthard, she decided that it was too dangerous to keep on driving. She parked the car and got out. After getting a cup of coffee at the nearby restaurant, she crossed the street and walked the few steps to the lake.
     The surface of Lake Vierwaldstättersee shimmered in the late afternoon sun. A ship was gliding by. On the horizon, the mountains began to emerge from the receding dark clouds. Anna recognized the shape of Mount Urirotstock across the lake. During summer, Fluelen was normally full of tourists stopping for coffee or lunch on their way to the south of Switzerland and Italy. Now, however, the town felt abandoned and empty. Only a few seagulls landed on the boardwalk, then took off again. One of the birds stayed behind. It was sitting on the railing along the lake. Anna suddenly felt that the bird was watching her.
     “You have it easy,” she said. “You can just fly away.”
     As if in reaction to her words, the seagull opened its wings and flew off. Anna, alone again, was gazing at the lake in front of her. Whether it was because of the oppressive closeness of the mountains or just simply the pain of the past few weeks, a feeling of fear and loneliness threatened to overwhelm her. She was afraid of the future, of the enormity of the tasks awaiting her. Now that all the activities of the past weeks and the funeral were over, now, in the silence of the gloomy late afternoon, she realized, perhaps for the first time, that she was the head of a family. So far, she had only been responsible for herself.
     As a young woman, Anna had always wanted to have children, but her marriage to her former husband had remained childless. Now, from one day to the next, she was the guardian of a little girl. She still shied away from the term “mother.”
     With the death of Anna’s mother and sister, she had lost the last members of her immediate family. Her father, who had moved back to the United States after Anna’s parents divorced, had passed away and her grandparents had been dead a long time. She had many close friends who had given her a lot of support. There were a couple of aunts and one uncle, a brother of her father’s. He was a kind man and had offered to help Anna financially, should she need it.
     Anna was the head of the library in her home town and owner of the only independent bookstore. The bookstore wasn’t a big money-making enterprise, but together with her salary and her freelance writing, she would be able to support herself and Karla. Fortunately, the home she had inherited from her mother was paid off. No, it wasn’t the money she worried about. It was the responsibility. Her heart ached with the loss of her mother and sister.
     “Why? Why did you leave me like this? Don’t you realize how much I still need you?” Anna whispered, tears streaming down her face.


  1. Christa, a sad, poignant story many will emphatize with. I did notice a couple of things - should it be "fell asleep in Anna's arms" instead of "fell asleep in Anna's arm"? Also should it be she can have a "kitty" instead of she can have a "kiddy"?

    It's a really good sample and I would definitely read more.

  2. Ooops, Linda, how embarrassing! Thanks for pointing out the blunders. The novel is at its editing/proofreading stage and such feedback is highly appreciated! No matter how often you reread something, you often overlook even some obvious errors!
    Thanks again,

  3. Christa:

    I really like this. Lovely and sad. I definitely want to read more.

    I do have some proofreading notes. (Grain of salt required...)

    "It had been an unusually hot summer in a country, which wasn’t exactly known for its heat waves." Why the comma? Better is: "It had been an unusually hot summer in a country not known for its heat waves."

    "The strong pungent scent of basil in between the tomatoe plants reminded Anna of her gardening chores she kept putting off because of the heat." Should be: "strong, pungent"; and "tomato"

    "in case the child had another one her nightmares." Missing word. Should be "another one of"

    Anna getting the "ominous phone call" is a chance for a powerful scene, as opposed to a brief recollection. Might build this out more, rather than keep it distant.

    I loved this: "It smelled of wet grass, of chrysanthemums, the sweet-rotten aroma of fall."

    "Anna was shaking hands..." More active is better here: "Anna shook hands..." In general, watch out for the passive voice.

    "Like porcelain dolls or empty shells, Anna thought." Nice.

    "Driving back to Zurich, Anna was thinking of Karla..." Passive. Better is "Anna thought of Karla"

    "Anna, alone again, was gazing at the lake..." Passive. Better: "Anna...gazed"

    That's all I got. Lovely scenes, Christa. I'll read more later.