Lan picked at her dinner, scowling, then put down her fork and said, “You want to know about my mother? Okay. Here’s pretty much everything you need to know about my mother.”
“I’m all attention,” he said, ignoring her to carve into his bird.
“She lost her coat the night she got here.”
She could see him trying not to react to that, but after a few awkward seconds, he looked at her. “There must be more to the tale than that.”
* * *
In every book I write, there are certain characters, background players who barely get a mention now and then, who fascinate me. They aren’t the heroes. They aren’t love interests. They don’t get big musical numbers to explain their motivations. They just tell their part of the story in a whispering background sort of way and fade out, but these are the characters I tend to gravitate towards the most, because they remind me that everyone has a story, but not everyone gets a book. In The Scholomance, it was Horuseps. In Cottonwood, Good Samaritan. In Arcadia, oh gosh, a whole slew of ‘em, but especially Lily. And in The Land of the Beautiful Dead, it’s Lan’s mother.
Although her influence on the book is strong, she’s not a major player. I could probably go back through and count the number of scenes she’s in. In fact, let me do that.
Okay, I’m back. She gets roughly 150 mentions, spread out over 35 separate scenes and in most cases, those mentions amount to Lan thinking that her mother once said or did this or that. One line, tossed away, which when picked up and pieced together, create a story–I’m not going to lie–I would almost rather be writing than the one I wrote.
What do we know about Lan’s mother? We know she’s not pretty. When Azrael remarks that all children find their mothers pretty, Lan is quick to reply, “Not mine. She was hard. Scarred.” We know she’s resourceful and tough, having grown up on her own not only in a strange land, but in a strange land overrun with dead people who want to eat you. And we know that, even in a zombie apocalypse, mothers say mother-things:
* * *
If this were Norwood and if her mother were still alive, she would have had Lan out of this room and on about her chores and never mind Mallowton or the garden or killing a kid. There were no excuses good enough to mope the day away. ‘If you can do something, do something,’ she used to say. ‘If you can’t, do something else, but quit sulking or I’ll give you something to sulk about.’
Who would have ever thought she’d miss hearing that? Or miss seeing that face, her head perpetually cocked because her left eye was nothing but a socket full of scars? She missed her mother’s hands—rough and chapped, with a knuckle bitten off on one and two fingers that wouldn’t bend on the other, so she was constantly flicking people the Vs if she didn’t consciously fold them down when she made a fist. She missed the heat of her mother’s body close to hers on the camp bed they shared in the women’s lodge and how she’d wake at the slightest cough or rustle in the dark and sit up, knife in hand, to listen…then lean over and touch Lan’s face, so lightly, never knowing Lan was awake to feel it or to hear her mother’s whisper, “She’s okay. She’s just fine,” as she tried to talk herself into going back to sleep.
* * *
And we know she’s dead. The book begins with Lan making her way to Haven, where Azrael rules, after her mother’s funeral, which is to say after her mother’s walking corpse had her back broken and was burnt, writhing and snapping her teeth, to ashes. Memorial service to follow.
Lan grew up in a comparatively sheltered life. She had strong walls around her to keep the Eaters out. She had food, although subsistence living is a bitch and starvation was a very real possibility. She considers herself a survivor, but not on the same scale. Familiarity breeds familiarity, as someone or another once said (They need to release Probe on DVD. I don’t care if it was just one season, I’d watch it) and those who grew up after the apocalypse just don’t measure up against those who had to live through it. Lan measures herself against her mother constantly and comes up short. Don’t we all, right?
My own mother died three years ago and the wound is still very fresh. It wasn’t a conscious factor when writing LoBD, (see the previous post for how consciously I write anything) but in my read-over, it is impossible for me not to find resonance in Lan’s memories of this vanished person, who she both idolizes and blames, doesn’t always understand, but profoundly misses. All of my books tend to strike along a central theme of Family and never is it more apparent than in this book. It wasn’t deliberate and I can only hope it reads well, because the kinds of family situations that exist in Beautiful Dead’s world are so far removed from my own experience that it was almost like writing for aliens.
Anyway, please enjoy the story of Lan’s mother and how she lost her coat (it’s not my favorite mother snippet, but my favorite will just have to wait until publication because it’s something of a spoiler), and then it’s back to edits. Also, it’s something of a downer, so be prepared.
* * *
“She was a child when she came to this country,” Lan said. “She didn’t remember how old. Maybe seven. Maybe only five or six. She used to live in a big house, painted grey and white. She said from her bedroom window, she could see the sea, but they never went there that she remembered. Not until the Eaters came. No one knew what happened yet. No one knew it was you. There was a whole ocean between you and my mother’s home, but the dead rose up anyway and started eating people.”
Azrael did not flinch or drop his eyes.
“They couldn’t get out of the city. All the cars were stuck on the road and so people were driving crazy, trying to get through anyway and crashing their cars and then they’d raise up and so there were Eaters on the road, going car to car and no one could get away. So they couldn’t get out of the city, but the city was even worse. People were shooting Eaters and shooting each other, which only made more Eaters, and buildings were burning and no one even knew why or what had happened. But somehow, someone over there came up with this plan to put all the kids in town that could get to them on a boat and take them to England. Just until whatever was happening was over, because they didn’t think it was happening in England and England was the only country they could think of that was far away and friendly. This was the plan. What kind of plan was that?” Lan asked him. That wasn’t part of the story. She hadn’t really meant to ask, but it came bubbling out of her all the same. “What kind of ass-headed plan…? She had no one, knew no one. Her parents thought they were saving her. Instead, they put her on a boat and sent her right into your glorious shadow. And she was five or six or seven. And she was all alone.”
Azrael said nothing.
“The ocean was cold. That’s all she remembered of the trip across. It took a long time and she mostly stayed in her room with the other kids. Sometimes, they were let out on the deck, but the wind was so cold and sometimes it snowed, so even if they were let out, she mostly stayed in her room. All she had was what she was wearing: her pajamas, her rubber boots, and her coat. There wasn’t time to pack others or even to really get dressed. And it was so cold that she hardly ever took the coat off, even indoors. It was pink, with white fuzz on the edges like fur, but not really. When the boat came close to the shore, they called all the kids up onto the deck. It was dark and it was snowing. All the kids were trying to stand in the middle of other kids because it was warmer there, but my mom was so little, she got shoved to the outside. She was right next to the rails in the very front of the boat. So she saw everything. She could see fires burning in the city, but no lights on. And the boat was going to dock anyway,” said Lan, shaking her head. “How could anyone see that and just dock anyway? How could they not know?”
“What would you have had them do?” Azrael asked quietly. “Sail the Earth forever? Perhaps they were out of food. Perhaps they thought…at least it would end quickly.”
“Nothing ends. That’s the point, isn’t it? They all but fed those kids to your Eaters and, quick or not, that’s a fucking awful way to go.”
He did not answer that.
“It was dark,” said Lan, after a few calming breaths and a drink of water. “But my mother could see shapes moving on the shore. She thought they were people, their new moms and dads, coming to get them. But they didn’t stop when they reached the end of the pier. They fell into the water, she said, and they kept coming until she could see this white, churning wave coming right at them. The boat never even had the chance to dock. The Eaters hit the side of the boat and kept piling up. It wasn’t quick, but it was…inevitable, she called it. Like the sun setting. They piled up higher and came over the rails and suddenly everyone was screaming. The boat kept going. It broke through the pier and crashed into the whatsis, the docking place. The hull stoved in and the boat started to flip over. The waves came over the side and kids were being washed overboard, right into the Eaters in the water. My mother fell too, but a wave picked her up. She grabbed hands with a boy in the water and the wave took them both to the pier. It put her down on top of the boards. It slammed him into the side and crushed him dead. That was how my mother came to England.”
“She lost her coat in the water, one assumes.”
“No, she still had it then. It was a big, puffy coat. She used to say it was what saved her, actually. It was full of air, like a life-vest. Anyway, there was no one left of the crew on the boat. No one to meet them on shore. Eaters bloody everywhere and no one to help. All she could see of the city was burning buildings and the boat sinking off the pier. All she could hear was sirens and screams. The kids all scattered as soon as they reached shore and most of them got taken down by Eaters pretty much right off. My mother was one of a group that climbed in through the window of a dockside warehouse or something. Understand, this place was in sight of the boat she’d come in on. She could have thrown a rock and hit it. But she thought she was safe, like a child who thinks pulling the blankets up over her head at night will keep the monsters out. She slept that night with her hood pulled up, the hood on her coat, for just that reason. It was a big, puffy coat,” Lan said again. “She couldn’t hear through it very well. She never heard the Eater come in through the window.”
Azrael raked his eyes across the table, then stabbed a small game bird of some sort off a platter and transferred it to his plate. He began to carve it, somewhat forcefully.
“It was only dumb luck it didn’t get her instead of the little girl it did get. It dragged her down and tore her open while she was still screaming and my mom saw her guts coming out. The little girl’s name was Sharon. My mother remembers that because she was wearing a nametag. It said, Hello, my name is Sharon. If I’m alone, please help me find an adult.”
Azrael put down his knife and fork and tore the leg off the bird with his hands.
“All the other kids ran, but my mom grabbed an axe—don’t ask me what an axe was doing lying around, because I don’t know—and hit him in the back. She severed his spine and no, he didn’t die, but he couldn’t get up either. He lay there and writhed instead, snapping his teeth while Mom tried to drag him off of Sharon. And when she finally rolled him over, Sharon got up. The rest of her guts fell out, but she still got up. Mom had to cut her head off to stop her. Would you like to know how my mother lost her coat?”
“She took it off because she couldn’t get the blood out. That’s how young she was—she left behind her only coat just because it got bloody.”
* * *
The Land of the Beautiful Dead