A few years ago, I finished a novel-length work, Rednecks, a coming-of-age story set in Northern Ontario. I was thrilled with the achievement of actually finishing a novel, especially after a good seven years working on a magical realist text to no clear resolution, so I immediately set about trying to get this new manuscript published.
There are very few literary agents in Canada, though, and all but three of the places I submitted to never so much as responded, so I was soon left trying to shop the text to publishing houses directly–also with a very poor response record (I only received one rejection). Since literary agents are rather ruthless in their requirements these days–a pitch, credentials, and five pages of sample writing, tops–I quickly realized that the credentials mattered more than anything. One needed to get published for fiction in top tier Canadian literary magazines first (according to explicit recommendations on the literary agent listings), so after having submitted little but poetry for years, I started submitting primarily short stories.
I wrote a great many general literary pieces during this period, noting (as I grew into my short story voice) that I had a rather sparse writing style–one which focussed more on the situation than relentless character background, and one which did not state things plainly, but rather, rewarded the reader who paid attention. I did not find stories like this in many places in Canada, so I would at times attempt more atmospheric or blatantly telegraphed works, but my heart always lay with a different writing style.
None of my fiction in this period got accepted, then, but as I was writing stories routinely now, I found myself preoccupied with a greater diversity of topics over time. To this end, I eventually started writing science fiction for the first time since I was a kid. I started submitting science fiction, too. And while the literary fiction markets did not budge, over time my science fiction voice grew stronger, and I started publishing in that incredibly friendly domain. (And the difference–in response times, in support, and in the sheer range of published styles–has been incredible. No complaints!)
These days, I am torn. I now have two “trunk” novels of a literary bent, and two more novels in progress–one a work of literary scifi, and one a work of hard, far future scifi. I still have stories I want to tell in a literary register, absent the scifi, but I see less and less likelihood that I’ll get the opportunity. In the meantime, a) my scifi voice is daily improving, b) I’ve been deeply fortunate in the number of times editors have taken a chance on me to date, and c) with scifi, I find myself able to address more issues in a broader, more fearlessly experimental register than I ever managed with literary fiction.
I shouldn’t be gloomy, then, in giving up trying to publish straight literary fiction. I have one more such work in a submission queue at present, but when I received a rejection letter from The Fiddlehead today, that settled the question of future short story submissions for me. I will probably continue to write literary fiction stories as the mood strikes me, but try to do anything with them? I fail to see the point right now.
Mind you, when I was an utter novice, I greatly anticipated rejection letters from The Fiddlehead, because they at least offered personalized responses–a tremendous reprieve from the inscrutable form letters I so often received. As I became more experienced and self-aware as a writer, though, I found these personalized responses more excruciating than the form letters, because what the personal notes said seemed to suggest more about the readers than about the writing itself. Almost all of them also had basic typos, including in two cases the inappropriate use of an apostrophe–which happens (folks are human), but really doesn’t make the fact of rejection easier to bear.
Anyway, I submitted a story to The Fiddlehead a few months ago, and I received a rejection from the slush pile reader today. This rejection was an exasperating read, because it suggested a completely inattentive reader–but I’m the writer, so of course it would exasperate me; and of course I would think they Just Didn’t Get It. Nonetheless, this rejection is indicative to me of a pattern I’ve seen across the board–while reading short stories published in Canadian literary magazines, and while reading rejection letters my own literary fiction has received to date. I understand, then, that Canadian literary magazines prefer things to be utterly telegraphed–for character backgrounds and motivations to be spelled out in full–but I don’t write that way, and I doubt I ever will. So I give up. No more submissions to Canadian literary journals from here on out.
What to do, then, with the last of my literary short stories? Some of them will join the “trunk” novels, for sure, but I still like one or two, so why not toss those up here, for all the good they’re doing on my laptop? Here, then, is The Fiddlehead‘s rejection letter, and the story the reader rejected. If you agree with the rejection, by the way, that’s totally fine by me. I’m just the writer, and writers are often stupidly blind to their own failings. But to me, this is nothing more than a stylistic mismatch, and with it, I give up on ever being a good “fit” for Canadian literary fiction magazines.
That said, I have a lot of optimism for my future as a writer in the scifi domain, where I have been able to explore an extensive diversity of subjects already, and don’t intend to quit pushing the limits of narrative form. I’m just frustrated that this other form, literary fiction–a field I have tried to publish in for ten years now–still seems as closed off to me as ever.
Nonetheless, I recognize how incredibly lucky I am to have had the successes I have had to date, and I cherish the kindness and the warmth of the people I have met in just the last two years publishing in scifi journals. Down the line, I hope I have the opportunity to support others the way I’ve been supported–and I hope, too, that all the themes and topics that matter most to me won’t be closed off because of my utter failure as a writer in this one, near-and-dear regard. Cheers and best wishes to you all, then, and all the luck in the world with your own creative pursuits–whatever form they take.
“Dear Ms Clark,
Thank you for submitting your story, “Nothing from the Heart,” to The Fiddlehead, but I’m sorry we cannot offer you publication. I appreciated the quality of your style, and the careful use of subtext, but felt that too much of the story was kept from the reader. It is never clear why the reporter has come to Clem’s house, or what it [sic] at stake for either character. From an observer’s perspective, the controversy seems quite trivial, so why is the reporter pushing it after 14 years? Perhaps a more forthcoming narrative would clear up some questions.
Nothing from the Heart
The woman from The Herald arrived at eleven, just as she had said she would on the phone message left the night before. Clem waited a quarter of an hour, but when she peeked through the front room curtains, the woman was still there, seated in Clem’s white wicker chair with a book and a basket, her umbrella resting open and still dripping at the top porch step. The woman was reading, and as she read she had a habit of running two fingers over her lips, which even at a distance seemed small and pale. When it came time to turn a page the fingers were replaced with teeth—a quick flash worrying the skin, then the fingers again, pressed overtop like a seal. It was raining steadily now, the sky light grey even as heavy drops hit the windowpanes, and Clem’s gutters burbled under their loads. The woman looked up and Clem did not realize immediately that she had been sighted; but when one fat raindrop supplanted another on the glass, and gave her to see those twin oval frames lifted and set intently upon her, Clem drew back and let the curtain fall, a beat lodged in her chest as she braced for some rapping or hollering at the front door. Neither came.
Clem watched the mantle clock for ten minutes before taking another peek. Nothing had changed. The air was still heady with rain, the woman was still reading, and two fingers kept fastidious purchase over her lips. Clem turned away and felt the beat lodged in her chest loose itself like a winged insect, only to strike at her ribs and throat when she spoke a quick prayer and opened the front door.
The woman only looked at her and waited, until Clem’s lips parted before she was sure of the words. “Come in,” she said, as if hearing herself at a distance, and she watched the woman rise and take account of her belongings before stepping inside.
“I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name.” But Clem was not sorry. She retreated further into the house as the woman slipped out of her boots and procured a pair of black flats from her purse. They fit snugly over stockinged feet with prominent blue veins.
“Meredith Langley,” the woman said. It rang a bell. Clem certainly remembered her face—not far removed from the column profile on the Herald Online, save that now the woman was not smiling, and there was a much poorer showing with the foundation on her cheeks and the concealer under darkly wrinkled eyes.
“I remember you, of course.”
The woman touched her glasses. “Yes, I imagine you would.”
Clem made for the dining room, willing herself calm as she cleared the breakfast dishes and took down two mugs from a shelf.
“Thought about calling the police on you. It would’ve been well within my rights.”
“Why didn’t you?”
Clem was silent, the clink of dishware between them.
“Let me hazard a guess.” The woman’s hand trailed over Clem’s dining table, catching at a split running width-wise down its polished hardwood top. “Too many people to deal with if you had.”
A deep, ragged breath propelled Clem into the bright yellow notes of her kitchen, where she cleaned and filled the kettle. “I’ve read all your online articles on me. Mama didn’t think I should, but then, mama…”
The woman was in the doorway when Clem turned around.
“Jesus,” Clem said, pressing a hand over her chest; her eyes darting up in way of apology. The beat was headed for her bones now—she was sure of it, all that quivering inside. The woman held up her basket.
“I brought a few things—tea, chocolate, some toiletries. I know on the big screen someone’s always bringing a casserole, but, well, I’m not the cook at home.”
Clem realized then that she was still wearing her mother’s apron—faded white polka dots on cornflower blue; frills all up the plain cotton straps; sunflower patches sprouting from the pocket in front. “It’s been six months,” she said. “I can take care of myself.”
“Oh, no doubt,” said the woman. “I saw all the boxes stacked on your porch. Amazing what you can get delivered these days.”
A flush climbed Clem’s neckline. She dried her hands on her mother’s apron and shut the pantry door on stacks of tinned soup, dry pasta, and sauce.
“That stuff’s for a special project.”
“No, it’s not.” The woman spoke slowly, but firmly. “You know I know it’s not.”
Clem offered up a quizzical look the woman matched by waiting until the pieces fell into place. Surveillance was nothing new, but Clem realized she had never thought it would continue through a death. “I should’ve filed for a restraining order,” she said quietly.
“Ah.” The woman held up a hand. “But for that, I believe you do need to leave the house for a while.”
The boiling water made its piercing call. Clem steadied herself by the weight of the instrument in her hands; passing back into the dining room, the notion came to her of hurling the kettle, or at least its contents, at the woman now setting fresh tea bags from her basket into each mug.
“Are you religious, Mrs. Langley?” she said instead. “Do you believe in our risen Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ?”
The woman sat by the head of the table and blew steadily against the steam rising from her mug. Her glasses were old, and visibly worn at the hinges. “I was raised Catholic,” the woman said. Clem paid more attention to what she had not.
“Then you know you cannot judge me. You never could.”
“Do you think I ever meant to?” The woman set down her tea and smoothed folds from the narrow runner bridging the length of the dining table. “You were just a child, Clementine. Four years old when it began.”
Clem needed no reminding. How much bigger the room had seemed then; how majestic the sunlight spilling over the long and jumbled line of paint jars, paints with names like quests unto themselves: Burnt sienna. Crimson red. Ultramarine. And then the ones she had named herself, little meticulous labels on the side of every pot: The Deepest Green of Eden. Blessed Art Thou White. Hosanna Pink, and later Purple.
“When I began,” she said.
The woman’s eyes creased at the corners, and she held her mug up to her lips a long and patient while, until Clem was certain the rain had stopped.
“Why are you here?” Clem said at last. “What do you want?”
“Oh, I’m off duty,” the woman said. With a sliver of a smile that did not reach her eyes, she set her purse on the table and tipped the contents out. Phone, wallet, loose receipts from many weeks past, eyeliner, lip balm, the book she had been reading out front, and a key chain laden as much with accessories as keys. Again, Clem took note of what was absent. The woman lifted her charcoal-grey lapels for good measure.
“I promise,” she said. “I’m not bugged.”
Clem’s eyes flooded with a stinging heat. “Then what—”
“You know what’s hard about small town news?” the woman said. “How much we know one another. The reporters, the people we write about. Everyone. Good grief, the mayor’s on Dave’s hockey team—Dave Barkley, my editor-in-chief. And that arson case last year, the one with the pregnant teen from LCI? Debbie’s daughter used to go on play dates with her. Deborah Shaw, our senior news reporter. Every now and then we get funding for a spring intern—someone fresh out of their first term at a journalism program out west—and you can just see it dawn in them, that utter frustration borne of purist ideals; the conviction that we should be disclosing everything. Every association. Every potential bias.”
Clem watched the woman’s gaze drift along the table, and her two fingers come up to rest at her lips. “Your mother,” the woman said, and then paused as though it were a statement unto itself. “Almost all of us were in high school around her—some a couple years before, some a couple after. Me, I was in senior year when she started out; that made me the least connected, and still—still I remember hearing when she got pregnant. When Kenny—” The woman attempted something of a deeper, wistful smile, but it turned quickly to a grimace. “When your father… at the warehouse. That was huge. The whole town was shaken. And I shook your mother’s hand at the service. Donated to the fund the church set up—for her, and for you. So now, tell me, how do you summarize a thing like that?”
Clem swallowed with difficulty, then nodded across the table. “That would’ve done, what you just said.”
“Oh, I said something of it before, Clementine—in my first column on the matter, back when you were four. The Herald wasn’t online then, though, and those archives still aren’t searchable in any coherent way. I’d be surprised if your mother kept clippings of it, either, such as the content was. But after that first one, you must understand, it was like preaching to the choir; the whole town knew your mother’s story by then, especially after you started making a splash with the nationals, and the big town dailies. It was in the back of all our minds.”
“So why keep going? You’d had your say, and plenty others were having theirs, too.”
“Because the story kept getting bigger, of course. Because soon you were what the town was best known for. And because people wanted updates. Whether they thought of it all as a fraud or not, they wanted to know what happened next.”
“Like we didn’t get enough of that from the big city papers,” Clem said. “And the tabloids. You know, most of the time mama had to keep the phone unplugged because of people like you—and worse. People who’d just call to say the most awful things.”
The woman’s lips drew wide and thin. “You mean people and papers that didn’t buy into it. I know your mother talked to plenty of the rest.”
“Well, why not?” Clem felt the errant heartbeat filtering through her bones now, a pounding right up to her skull. “The things you called her. You, Mrs. Langley. Some of the nationals, too, and the tabloids, sure, but you. Those are things you’ll have to answer for some day, Mrs. Langley. Those are things He’s going to find written on your heart.”
Clem searched for some sign of contrition, but the woman seemed unmoved by even these words of power, and Clem only felt all the worse for intimating the woman’s final judgment to no good and moralizing effect.
“There are plenty in town who’d agree with you,” the woman said instead. “Folks who’d rather our town be known for the ‘What if’ over the fraud theory any day. Folks who felt that, no matter what, your mother was still one of our own, and even if I didn’t see that, I had a duty to protect our own from outsiders, and there were better things I could’ve been doing than raising questions again and again about your mother’s wildest claims.”
“We prayed for you, you know.” Clem spoke so suddenly she had to catch herself with a sharp inhalation of breath—the memories quick to rise to any opportunity. Even now Clem could hear her mother appealing for the eternal welfare of ‘that woman’ at The Herald, and herself answering with what still sounded in her head like the smallest, the slenderest ‘amen’. Clem took another slow and ragged breath to extricate herself from even that much dwelling upon the distant sound of her mother’s voice.
“Every night for weeks after each of those columns,” Clem said. “We prayed that you’d one day know peace, so you wouldn’t need to spout all that anger anymore just to get through the day. That’s the trouble with reporters like you, Mrs. Langley—you write down all those words, you look for all the facts, but you leave nothing for the heart. Nothing. There just isn’t room for people like me in your world, even though you must know, you must, that there are more things in heaven and earth than exist—”
“Yes,” the woman said. “I know.”
Clem tightened her hold on her mug, its heat matched by her own, just under the skin. “Then why was it so hard to just believe? What was so awful about my family’s story that you couldn’t even entertain the possibility that it was true?”
The woman watched her closely now, and there was a knot in Clem’s stomach at the thought that pity was what she saw in the woman’s weathered face.
“It’s not awful for a child to hope,” the woman said. “Or even to believe that she can commune with her deceased father in another realm. What’s awful is a person taking advantage of that hope, and claiming that this child’s been given prophetic sight and the artistry to match. Saying that God has allowed a miracle to occur in your drawings, Clementine, then selling those drawings to gullible people at the highest possible price.”
“You call them gullible.” Clem trembled with fresh indignation at the woman’s words, which seemed almost brought to life from columns past. “That doesn’t make it so.”
“Fair enough.” The woman inclined her head. “I concede that. But if there’s a loving God in the world, I still can’t believe He’d choose to intervene in human affairs in such a frivolous way, while staying silent on all the famines, and the diseases, and the violent wars that devastate our sense of dignity every day. I just can’t believe that, Clementine. Can you?”
But ‘if’ was the only word Clem had registered; she fixed her mind on it with utter incredulity. “God gave me this gift,” she said at last. “That’s all I know. I know not to what end, but if you believe that our Lord is a good Lord, and a just Lord, and a loving Lord, then that should be enough. The rest is not for us to know.”
“Oh, but sometimes it is,” the woman said. “In this day and age? Your mother never submitted you to even the simplest of tests, Clementine, and why would she? She was already making plenty of sales online. What did she stand to gain from the truth?”
“But there are videos. The TV news teams—”
“They got a few minutes, tops, of you with your brush on a nearly completed canvas. And even then the experts questioned your technique, your colour choices in contrast with finished works that had already been released. Your mother never allowed them to record the whole process—not one painting from beginning to end. She said painting was a time of tranquility and spiritual connection for you, and she couldn’t let anyone tamper with it. Her word, Clementine: ‘tamper’. As if we were the ones messing with the ways of the world.”
“I met him, though,” Clem said. “You can’t say I didn’t. I was only eight weeks old when daddy died, but I drew him perfectly after he came to me in a dream one night, when I was just four years old. Mama had all his pictures locked away, but I knew. I just knew.”
“Why did she have all those pictures locked away? Doesn’t it seem a strange thing to do? Especially for your mother, who so believed that Kenny was in Heaven, looking down and watching over the two of you? You were only four, Clementine. And such dreams that children dream. How easily they buy into an adult’s guiding words.”
“So you are here to try to debunk it after all, then,” Clem said, rising. “Like a vulture swooping in at her leisure. And mama only six months passed, God rest her soul. You should be ashamed of yourself, Mrs. Langley, to come upon me at a time like this just to say such vile and nasty things.”
But the woman’s gaze had already shifted past the table and up the cream-print wall, where it settled on a foot-long wooden crucifix mounted just above a dusty looking glass.
“You don’t get many visitors anymore, do you, Clementine? Besides the deliverymen, I mean. Six months you’ve been cooped up in here, and all those visitors dropping off after two months, maybe three.”
“I have friends,” Clem said, though even she caught her voice faltering some. “People write me. I’ve got lots who say I’m in their prayers.”
“I see,” the woman said. “Customers? Church folk your mother knew? Home-schooled as you were, did you make many friends your own age?”
When Clem said nothing the woman sighed. “Did it ever occur to you that, deep down inside, they knew? That they liked being a part of that terrific ‘What if?’ while it was popular, but a part of them always knew whose was the real hand on the brush? And that once that hand had passed on, it would only be a matter of time before it emerged that your ‘gift’ was gone as well?”
“I thought you said these people were gullible. Now they’re conniving. Which is it, Mrs. Langley?”
“People can be incredibly conniving when the aim is to keep their dearest, deepest deceptions intact.” The woman paused. “But I’m not trying to break them of that habit today, Clementine. Or ever again, where your story’s concerned.”
Clem’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re going to leave us alone, then? You promise?”
The woman seemed taken aback by Clem’s choice of pronoun. “Yes,” she said carefully. “I promise. Clementine, you’re eighteen now, and by my reckoning you’ve run out of remnants of your mother’s work to sell. Now, maybe you picked up a thing or two about art yourself, and you can apply to a college program after getting your high school equivalency—your mother’s insurance money must surely cover something to that end. And I hope you do. I really hope you can find it in yourself to leave this house again. But you have another option, too—to take back your mother’s story; to make it yours, in print. It’s rightfully yours anyway, and you can do so much good by telling it yourself, with all the complexity, and the honesty, that it deserves.”
“So much for honour thy father and mother.”
“There’s also a bit in the Bible about bearing false witness. I understand it’s hard, though, knowing at times which should come first.”
Clem shut her eyes and bowed her head. The beat inside her bones had turned at last into a full-bodied prayer, which she uttered in silence while standing—her hands clutching white-knuckled at the table’s edge, a fleeting thought in mind of simply passing out.
“I have an intern now,” the woman said while Clem prayed. “Her name’s Wendy, and she’s marvellous. Really, anything on the web she just gets, and she’s quite the patient teacher, too—even with us old birds at the office. She’s the one who made me realize that there’s no such thing as local news anymore. Not in this town, at least. Not since The Herald went digital. Now whenever anyone, anywhere, hears your name and the claims attached to it, my columns come up just as easily in the search engines as any by the nationals, or the online TV broadcasts.
“The difference being that I was always writing for an audience that already knew your mother—at least, as much as I knew her, if not more—so my audience had a context to read even my harshest words against. But none of these folks online know that. None of them were here when we all heard about the warehouse, so how could they understand that it scared a lot of us strange for a while? And I don’t blame them for not being interested, either, because what they want to know is important, too: Is this story a fake, or isn’t it? But I still wish I’d been kinder, Clementine. I do. And I do wish your mother’s choices had made kindness an easier feat for people like me.”
“But I’m not a fake,” Clem said. “And neither was she.”
The woman pushed her glasses higher up her raw-boned nose. “Misguided, then. Not quite as miraculous as first made out to be.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Clem said. “I’m just in the middle of one—the next one, I mean. I didn’t know if I ever could—again—but last month I broke through the grief. Really I did.”
The woman’s expression, while impassive on the whole, could not mask the flicker of doubt behind those worn-out lenses. “What,” she said. “You mean a painting? In progress?”
Clem felt a warmth course through her then, much calmer than the heat that had preceded it. She did not need to glance at the crucifix to draw further strength from its embodiment of grace. “Would you like to see it? Would you like to watch?”
The woman hesitated. “It could just be another unfinished canvas you found among your mother’s things. Or, you know, Clementine, you’re eighteen now; there could easily be a skilled artist in you yet.”
“So nothing about this changes your mother’s claims when you were four.”
“All right.” Clem shrugged. “But still. It’s something, isn’t it? And maybe even something good?” Now it was Clem’s turn to wait, the woman scanning the whole of the dining room before pushing aside her mug.
“All right,” the woman said at last. “Why not?”
The room had barely changed since Clem’s earliest recollections, except that now it was smaller in a way that the bright white walls and the slanted windows, for all the sun they were letting in at the close of the morning’s storm, could not repair. The wall trim moulding still bore shapes of childhood images in primary reds, yellows, blues, and greens; the rug over dark wood flooring was frayed and spattered with flecks of paint nearly fifteen years deep. Another white wicker chair sat in one corner, a stack of Bible scholarship and romance novels in an uneven stack by its side. There was only one easel, wrought of towering, maple legs, and it was set in the centre of the room with workbenches on either side. By the far wall leaned a canvas a metre long on either side, draped in stained white cloth.
As the woman paused just inside the doorway, surveying all the little toys and accessories still strewn about the room from ages past, Clem moved the canvas, cloth and all, onto the easel and rooted about for brushes, cups, and paints. When she looked up the woman had one hand on the wicker chair, and two fingers over her lips as she read the title of each stacked book.
“Your mother’s seat, or yours?”
Clem paused, and for the first time searched the woman from The Herald for some presence of her mother—in the neck-folds, or the slight stoop at the shoulders, or the general reediness of the woman’s frame. How old her mother had looked, too, nearest the end.
“Ready?” Clem said, drawing up a stool before the easel. The woman turned and, with a slight nod, gave Clem her full attention. But there was something in the woman’s expression—something already braced for disappointment, two fingers still resting upon those small, pale lips—that left Clem dizzy, her body almost rag-doll limp when she faced the mounted work and realized how long it had been since another human being last shared this space with her, and how many eyes were truly set upon her now. No prayers came to Clem over the beating of her own heart, but before tearing off the protective cloth, her hands clung for what seemed an eternity to that rough fabric—like an apron, or a shroud.