Walking with Invisible Friends

As some of you may recall, I am embarking on a course (of sorts) to help me focus and actually write one of the novels that I keep thinking about. The first assignment asked that I suggest two novel ideas so my instructor could guide me and suggest which one would be stronger. Yeah, right! To quote my instructor,

“Occasionally in this new course I’ve encountered a situation where a student presents two ideas that are both good. In this case my slight tendency is to recommend Andra’s story because I think the plot elements might translate to a full length novel slightly better. But I’m interested in Layla, too, as you’ve gathered.”

In other words, he is leaving the decision up to me, which is a problem because both these stories have been calling to me for a while now, and I think the Layla story has potential once I tighten up my plot ideas. [On a complete side note, I borrowed the name  Andra from the fabulous Andra Watkins over at The Accidental Cootchie Mama, I hope she doesn’t mind–it is really a compliment and perfect for this particular character.] He did give me the option of doing the second assignment, which develops characters further, for both proposals so he could get a better feel for the characters and make a stronger choice. I probably will do that, and I may just continue to do each assignment for both projects even after he has chosen one. But, I thought it might help if I could make my own decision.

To this end, I decided to take my characters on a walk through the botanical gardens today, with interesting results. Enjoy!

“Girls, you have to help me out,” I say as I choose my path through the botanical gardens. “I need to choose one of you to focus on, but I want to know you both better. How do I choose?”

“Why can’t you just tell both our stories?” Andra demands, setting the pace for our walk. “We both have something to say.”

“M-m-my story is nothing s-s-special,” Layla stammers in her quiet voice almost a whisper, but still somehow resonating with sound.

Her voice surprises me. “I didn’t know you stuttered, Layla. I thought you were learning to become the Storyteller.”

She looks down, shyly, focusing her attention on the deep purple and drooping yellow flowers by the side of the path.

“It c-comes and g-g-goes. When I am t-telling a t-t-true story, when the m-m-magic enters my body,” she reaches out, her fingers glowing. The yellow flowers reach toward her fingers, as if embracing the warmth of the sun. “When that happens,” Layla continues, her voice sounding richer and deeper, “I find my voice.”

“Wow!” Andra pipes in while making crunching sounds on the gravel with her feet as if she is anxious to keep moving. “So both our stories have something to do with finding our voices.”

“Well, yes,” I say. “In a way.”

“Of course, I know I don’t have any problems talking. It’s just that the rulers of my country want to keep me silent! Not just silent, they want me and all other women to be stupid.”

“You’re obviously not stupid, Andra,” I saw as we all resume our walk. After sharing her brief moment of magic, Layla seems content to watch and listen, silently observing the world around her.

“I was lucky. My parents taught me everything they could get away with, by telling me stories and sharing everything. The only thing they were afraid to teach me was how to read and write, because that is against the law. Girls and women cannot learn to read and write. supposedly for our own good. But, since my Father is a scrivener, I managed to sneak out scraps of paper to learn anyway. Father always talks about what he is copying, unless it’s  top secret, so I’ve learned much more than most girls ever could.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?” I ask.

“If anybody in power ever finds out I can read, my whole family will be in trouble.  I try to keep it secret to protect them. But lately I found out something interesting and I don’t know how much longer I can keep my secrets hidden.”

“S-s-silence is bad.” Layla surprises me by speaking up. “W-w-what did you learn?”

“We’ve always been taught that women couldn’t read because it would hurt our brains somehow. Even though I don’t feel hurt, everyone always thinks I’m strange and different, so I guess I believed it too. I don’t mind being different though. I’m ok with that.”

“People think I am s-s-strange too, because I am silent. B-but they m-m-made me s-s-silent, by t-t-teasing me and being cruel when I was a child. They l-l-laughed at my s-s-stutter.”

“That’s horrible!” Andra puts her arm around Layla’s shoulder.  “I would be your friend. I mean, you’ve got cool powers and everything.”

A tiny curvature of the mouth peeks out of Layla’s face.

“What did you find out?” I ask, trying to gain some control over this conversation.

“Well, I read something I shouldn’t have. Actually, there’s nothing I should be reading,” Andra laughs.  “But this was a letter from a person high up in the government to another noble that said he sensed a threat coming from a group of men and women. It said, ‘we have to strengthen our evidence and make it more convincing. We have to find more ways to keep women down, otherwise we will lose control.”

“That’s intense,” I say. “And kind of terrifying.”

“N-n-nobody should be kept down. Division is dangerous.” Layla says, looking straight at Andra with her deep brown eyes that seemed to hold wisdom well beyond her years. Andra shifts her gaze away. “You must s-stop this,” Layla says.

“I know. I’m going to. Somehow. But, what do you mean, division is dangerous?”

The glow that was once only in her fingers, seems to flow through Layla. When she speaks, her voice has shifted slightly, no longer the whisper of the shy girl/woman, now she has the rich tones of a storyteller. “Let’s sit here, under the beauty of trees, by this moss stairway. It reminds me of the secret places of the Others.”

Andra and I sit on a wooden bench, and for a moment we hear nothing but the wind blowing through the trees and the trills of hidden birds.

“Where I come from the trees hold secrets.” Layla begins, her voice growing richer with  each word, and the glow from her hands spreading becoming too hot to look at. “The Others live deep in their darkness. Some call the Others animals, but that is out of fear. Out of the need for division and separation. My mentor, the Storyteller, knows better. She has told me this.”

At this point the light from her hands shoots up over her head to form the shape of an ancient woman with a huge smile. The woman’s laugh lines bury her eyes in joy. Layla speaks in this woman’s voice, in the voice of the true Storyteller. “Their lives are different from ours, Layla. But they are human too. They look different. They eat different foods. They share different songs and stories and beliefs. But they, like us, are human. They know secrets we do not. They could help us, just as we could help them.”

“So why do your people dislike the Others?” Andra asks, always searching for understanding and knowledge.

“Fear. But I am afraid that fear will kill us all. At least, that is what the Storyteller tells me. B-b-but,” here Layla’s voice returns to normal, “I have t-to s-s-seek the t-t-truth.  Although I am afraid. The S-s-storyteller is dying, as are m-m-many in our village. The Others m-m-may know a cure. If I d-don’t find a way to b-b-bring our groups together, I think everyone is d-d-doomed.”

“It sounds like we both have something important to do,” Andra says, jumping up and pushing us toward walking again.” We can’t just sit and talk, we need action. So Lisa,” she says, “Whose story are you going to tell?

“Let’s go get something to eat,” is my only answer . . . for now.

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