Book Excerpt: A City of Wood

Since I first started this blog to promote my books, I thought I’d show you a sample. Here is the first chapter of A City of Wood. Enjoy.


“IS GOING TO be big fire,” Yelena said, and then fell silent. The dead were patient like that. They had time.
Kasimir stood looking out the window at the moonlit waters of the lake. Every detail stood out sharply, despite the fact that his spectacles were on the table beside the bed. He turned to look at the figure huddled under the blankets. Still asleep, by the look of it. He always hated to have anyone witness his conversations with the ghosts of his childhood.
“Why you care what girl think?” Yelena demanded.
The rich and guttural language of her youth had no native words for a or the, and she disdained their use even in death, considering them a frivolous affectation.
“Girl not important,” she said, “You know her name, even?”
“Adelaide,” Kasimir said promptly, then frowned. That didn’t sound right.
Yelena’s face took on a look of malicious glee. That wasn’t the girl’s name, and she knew it. She folded her hands over the richly embroidered front of the Russian sarafan that she wore. Its bell-like curve made her look like an especially malevolent tea cozy.
“Abigail?” Kasimir said.
“That is sister of father’s girl assistant.”
A shadow fell across the window, and Kasimir turned around in time to see a tall ship creak by in near silence as it headed up the river from the lake. The crow’s nest was nearly level with the window. It was occupied by a young sailor, who looked at Kasimir with lively interest as he passed by.
An errant breeze came off the lake, cooling the fine sheen of sweat on Kasimir’s skin. He suddenly realized that he was naked. No wonder the sailor had looked at him. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath of the night air. It held the flavor of fish and tar.
He cast his mind back to earlier in the evening. The girl in the tavern below, her chestnut hair coming loose from its pins. Beer—too much of it—and the way she had leaned into him as she set the tankard in front of him.
Surely she had told him her name before leading him upstairs? He could remember the feel of her breasts, the smell of her hair, and the small sounds she made when he slid inside her. But her name eluded him.
“You say nothing?” Yelena said.
“What do you want me to say?” Kasimir replied, opening his eyes. “There’s always a fire. The entire city is one giant bundle of kindling.”
The ship was already out of sight, and the full moon glittered on the vast waters of the lake. Moonlight bleached the brightly painted clapboard buildings along the waterfront nearly white, and the giant grain silos that stood sentinel at the mouth of the river cast deep shadows over the tangled web of railroad tracks beyond. The whole city creaked from the summer-long drought. September had brought no relief.
“Is going to be big fire,” Yelena repeated.
“Big? Like a whole block?”
“Whole city. No escape.”
That sounded dire. Then again, Yelena’s pronouncements usually did. She had always had a flair for the dramatic, even in life. Kasimir sighed.
“How?” he said.
“From men. In sky.”
He puzzled over that for a moment.
“In the sky?” he said at last, “That’s impossible, you know.”
“So is talking to me. You dreaming, maybe?”
He was quite sure that he was, and was equally sure that she knew it too, so he said nothing. A flash of light from the corner of his eye drew his attention back to the window. He heard a slight rumble, like distant thunder, but instead of the lightning he expected, he saw something else streaking across the night sky.
A ball of fire plunged into the lake, leaving behind a trail of bright smoke. He blinked. The afterimage still burned itself on the inside of his eyelids. It must have been close.
He wondered if his father had known that a meteor was in the vicinity, and if so, why he hadn’t mentioned it. His father wasn’t shy about his astronomical discoveries. He would be disappointed to have missed this one.
“You see?” Yelena said, “They here now.”
“That was a meteor.”
“Was man,” she insisted. “He comes now.”
Kasimir looked and saw a pair of wings gliding toward the shore. It looked too large to be one of the lake gulls harrying the shore. A cormorant? Some sea bird blown off course? It wheeled closer.
“I don’t see anything,” he said.
“There. Is flying here.” Yelena’s voice had grown impatient.
“That’s a bird.”
“Is man, I tell you.”
He watched it approach. The wings were enormous, bigger than any bird he had ever seen, and oddly formed. As it wheeled closer, he saw that it looked more like a giant bat than a bird. He stepped back from the window, suddenly reluctant to be seen.
The creature had come close enough to scan the shore. Its eyes, too large and set at the wrong angle for a bird, caught the light of the moon and seemed to glow. Kasimir felt the hair on his arms stand up.
It finally landed on the pier below, stumbling a bit before righting itself. Then, with a fumble and a shrug, it shed its wings. Kasimir saw it fold them under its arm and walk away. Its walk was indeed very human-like.
It paused a moment to look at something on the dock, just outside of Kasimir’s line of vision, before moving on. Soon it disappeared in the shadows beyond the silos.
“Is going to be big fire,” Yelena said again, like a Greek chorus emphasising the plot. Then she vanished.
Kasimir’s vision blurred, and then he was awake, and alone, and naked by the window. There was movement from the bed. The girl was sitting up, and looking at him.
“You was talking to someone,” she said.
He walked back to the bed and sat down on the edge of the thin mattress. She smiled at him tentatively, but he felt her body tense when he reached out his hand to rest on her thigh.
“I’m sorry, uh, Alice,” he said, “I didn’t mean to wake you. I talk in my sleep sometimes when I’m tired. Or have too much to drink.” He gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile.
“My name is Agatha.”
“Oh. I’m sorry,” he said again. “I guess I had quite a lot to drink last night.”
He pulled his hand away. This was clearly not going to be the restful night of release that he’d hoped for.
“It’s all right,” she said, “most men forget my name afterward. At least you came close.” Her tone was soothing, but it only made him feel worse.
He reached for his spectacles and put them on, and then went in search of his clothes. By the time he left, she had already gone back to sleep.


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