Across the Dark Distances

It was May and I’d spent the day cutting Pineapple Lilies to ground level and covering them with a deep mulch to protect them from frosts.  I was no gardener and I was proud of my squirrelly preparations for winter.  Johannesburg looked beautiful – the African Tulips flushed vermilion in the Highveld sun, and the Maidenhair trees were as gold as the mineral that runs rich and deep through the reef below the city.  Fading memories of rain dissipated in the dry autumn air – the rains would not return until spring.

I was as mellow as the season. I was sunk into the sofa with my feet in Jake’s lap. They felt boneless as he worked my pressure points. The air was cold, and a small fire murmured in the log burner. The living room of the little house in Orange Grove that we had occupied for just three weeks was furnished simply with bright kilim rugs and other fruits of our expeditions to thrift shops.  Jack stopped kneading my feet and I gave him a small kick.
‘Harlow,’ his voice carried a low threat.
‘What?’
‘Don’t kick the hand that massages you.’  I kicked him again and he dug his nails into my foot.

When the back door crashed open, I started with such force that I ricked my neck. Four men swarmed into the room, three of them scarcely more than boys, but nothing toy-like about the Saturday night specials they brandished, proud little cocks showing off their cox-combs.
‘Hey Bitches,’ the leader strutted across the living room, gangster-handsome, dressed-for-success in Armani.  He was calm as a winter’s night, cold as a concrete block.
‘Guns, cash, phones, right now, you have thirty seconds, let’s move, Bitches.’ He addressed himself to Jake, who had shrunk into the sofa, seemed swallowed by it. The leader looked at me, his lip curled. ‘Then we’ll taste your woman.’
‘We have no guns or money, please, take whatever you want.  The TV, phones, here,’ Jake half rose, held out his iPhone 5, his prized possession, grabbed my twin phone.  His and hers with the matching covers – mine a storm, his sunny skies, bought in jest but containing the truth of why we worked. His calm to my storms, his B to my A, yin and yang.
‘You’ve feng-shuied me,’ he’d say and kiss my lips.

The leader flicked a glance to one of the youths who he leaped forward, pocketed the phones and pistol-whipped Jake across the side of the head.  Jake melted down onto the edge of the sofa, slid onto the floor, an exhaled breath.
‘You won’t be that stupid, will you, Bitch,’ the leader said, and I pointed to my handbag on the teak coffee table I had found in an antique store and bought with my first pay-check.
‘In my bag – my gun, cash, that’s all there is,’ wanted to add, ‘don’t hurt us please,’ but what was the point.  Jake was already hurt; I knew what was in store for me.  Knew it the minute the door was kicked open. The leader’s eyes held mockery, hatred, amusement. I was his possession, his bounty. I met his eyes with defiance, would not show weakness, look away. He held my gaze while the others swarmed around the house returning with items they wanted and throwing them into a black bin-bag. There wasn’t much worth taking, some clothes, jewellery, an old laptop.

‘Get naked, Bitch.’  The three young sidekicks giggled, aimed some pelvic thrusts in my direction, one grabbed his crotch, rubbed furiously. I did as I was told, felt four pairs of eyes assault me.  Jake stirred and met my gaze from where he lay, the storm in his eyes now.
‘Don’t watch,’ I said, but he seemed not to hear, his pupils fixed points of pain fastened on mine as I was raped. I tried to dissociate like I did at the dentist, tried to imagine a beach, warm sun, water lapping, as the leader hammered away at me, the kilim rough beneath my back. He licked my face like a dog, his acrid breath foul on my face.
‘This too will pass,’ I told myself, tried not to react, not to cry out, knew he got off on my pain. I hoped a lack of reaction would get it over quicker. ‘Please only one please only one,’ writhed like a brain worm round and round in my mind. Then he choked me, hands around my throat, tighter and tighter and I knew he was snuffing me out like a paraffin lamp, and I let go, floated above my kicking struggling self and away into the comforting darkness.

I regained consciousness to pain that lay beyond the crying of it, a slashing blade that gave me simultaneously air and agony.  My throat cut, my crotch aflame, Jake’s unflinching gaze like a blind pulled down, opaque.
‘Now die, Bitch,’ a final kick aimed at my groin, connected with the soft flesh of my thigh. I was surprised it hurt so much amid the other, greater hurts.  I heard them leave; the broken back door banged repetitively against the kitchen bench. The chilly outside air had long since snatched away our domestic warmth.   Cold. I needed to move, fetch help; I felt my head roll back.  My cut throat had severed supporting ligaments, must have missed major vessels or I’d be dead. I grabbed my hair, held my head in position with one hand, clutched my sweater to cover myself with the other, best I could.  I couldn’t speak, I tapped Jake with a bloodied foot, tried to set him in motion but he was unresponsive.  I staggered outside, knew they would be there waiting, heard voices.  Indecision hobbled me.  To go towards the voices or go the other way? I staggered towards, heard a shout.  Still unsure whether salvation or death, I fell to my knees unable to take another step either way, heard a flood of expletives.  I felt supporting hands on my arms, a jacket wrapped around me.

15 thoughts on “Across the Dark Distances

  1. Terah Harris says:

    I read the entire excerpt. I think you’ve got something here. I’m definitely intrigued and would read more if provided.

    However, I don’t think you’ve started the story in the best possible place. I found the first paragraph to be unnecessary. With a little work, I actually like the set-up in the second paragraph (it shows the mood of the character before the attack) as a possible first paragraph. Also, starting the story with the third paragraph isn’t a bad idea either. Whatever you decide, make sure it pulls the reader into the story.

    Watch your use of inactive verbs. They slow your writing down. In the first three sentences of the second paragraph, you used was three times.

    Be careful that you are showing and not telling. I found quite a bit of examples of you telling the reader something instead of showing. For example, you said the air was cold. How can you show cold? Maybe the window displayed signs of frost. I’m also not sure what it means to be mellow as the season. How can you show the mellow mood of the MC? Is she dozing off as Jake massages her foot? Dig deeper with your descriptions.

    This is my opinion but I don’t think you need to mention that the MC was raped. That’s telling again. Try this: “Don’t watch,” I said, but seemed not to hear, his pupils fixed points of pain fastened on mine. I tried to dissociate like I did…as the leader hammered away at me.” In my opinion that works better.

    Overall, I’m curious to see where this story goes. I hope this feedback is helpful. All the best!

  2. John Dawson (@johnsonofdaw) says:

    I’ll comment after I read each paragraph.

    1. Liked all but the last sentence.

    2. I like your style, it flows nicely without drawing too much attention to itself.

    3. Liked “calm as winter’s…block”. Had right feel. “His B to my A” doesn’t fit and it’s not needed. I like the juxtaposition of the gentle memory with the brutal present.

    4. Consider refining Jake’s meltdown sentence. You’ve drawn me in where I dread to go.

    5. I told you I didn’t want to go there! It is very well done – you didn’t try to over word or over graphic it. It didn’t need that, not for me anyway.

    6. Ditto

    A powerful start. I liked the way you used paragraph breaks to reset the scene or perspective. I don’t have any improvements to offer, your writing is too polished. You might consider some hint in the first or second paragraph of what’s to come, so readers don’t get the idea that it’s going to be a gentle suburban relationship story – just a touch of foreboding? But you had me hooked anyway, even though I don’t know whether it will be a revenge, relationship, personal struggle, or some other type of story.

  3. Jennifer Eller-Kirkham says:

    Terah and John, thanks a million for your feedback, which I need badly and was incredibly helpful. Thanks for your comment about the title, John, I really want to know what people think of it and when I wasn’t getting ANY feedback, I was trying to decide if the story was so awful no-one wanted to say, or if it was the title. It is from a Don Mattera poem:
    Hearts reaching out
    across the dark distances
    where emotions are imprisoned
    in the breast
    voices crying where others are silent….
    I would love more feedback on it because, I will need the poet’s permission to use it and I have not been sure at all about it.
    Most of the other comments are along the lines I expected, especially that the first paragraph is too descriptive and needs to be either all or mostly cut. We get so attached to our own sentences and it is hard to be objective. Your comments have really helped me to identify what is working and what isn’t and I appreciate your taking the time to comment.

  4. johnsonofdaw says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    Just to confuse you, I actually liked the first paragraph, it wasn’t long enough to lose anyone, it located a benign scene, and that contrasted and highlighted the brutality to come. I also liked “mellow as the season”, I thought it set the mood very economically. I take Tarah’s point about showing not telling, but I’m not sure it’s as important for first person narration as it would be for omniscient. On these points I’m probably a minority opinion. I’m pretty sure about the title though. I doubt many people know the poem, so if it is pertinent to the story I’d slot it in somewhere crucial (at the end?) and find a title that’s more catchy.

    • Jennifer Eller-Kirkham says:

      Thanks for that. This is why this exercise is so helpful as one gets actual readers’ responses and can measure them against one’s own thoughts. The purpose of the opening was to set a scene of mellow transquility to contrast with the horror of what follows. But I worry about boring the reader so that they don’t read on. Thanks for your opinion, I will leave the beginning as is more or less and continue to contemplate these points. Thanks for your comment re the title. I was going to include the poem exerpt at the beginning of the book, but I am not overly invested in it. Don’t want something that doesn’t draw readers.

  5. Eliza Worner says:

    It’s a strong opening but I’m really stuck on starting your novel with a rape scene. There has been a lot of discussion about using rape as a plot device in literature. I’d be very interested to hear what Ellen thinks because I don’t feel qualified to say anything, except it rings alarm bells.

    It’s a very touchy subject amongst feminists and survivors of rape and needs to be approached with caution. I don’t think your scene is too gratuitous or non-sympathetic, it’s a violent attack and it’s more than just rape, but there’s so much to think about.

    • Jennifer Eller-Kirkham says:

      Thanks Eliza, definitely food for thought. I will try to read up on some of the debate. My book is about violence in many forms. This is one scene – there is violence of various types, much of it but not all, sexual violence, in my book. For sadly rape and violence are epidemic in Johannesburg and a key theme of the book is violence and how it impacts the individuals and therefore the whole society. So the rape scene is much more than a plot device. I have opened with it (as a prologue which I know is also disliked by editors) because it is essential to understanding the character of Harlow and what happens in the main plot of the book which is picked up four months later in the first chapter. I am trying to include the violence with a light touch, so that it is not too graphic or hideous to read, but also leaves the reader in no doubt as to its horror. It’s hard to do.

      • Jennifer F. Santucci says:

        Hi Jennifer,
        I read the excerpt and it took me a while to formulate what to say. I came back and Eliza articulated it very well. Rape should be approached with caution. Opening the book with a rape scene shifts the focus of the story. Since the readers don’t know the character and there’s no context, the scene reads as an act of violence. The scene demonstrates cruelty and a physical violation that every woman fears. But the reader hasn’t also developed a connection to the MC yet, so the impact of the rape doesn’t resonate as deeply as it should.

        You mentioned that the first chapter picks up four months after the rape. If you start the story there, consider how the reader’s expectations are affected if we encounter a broken victim who’s suffered a trauma. Does the reader need to know the details of the rape before getting to know the victim? Or can her trauma be shown through her actions and behavior. It’s difficult for her to speak because her vocal chords were bruised. She wears shirts with collars or turtlenecks to hide her scar. She bolts her doors and windows and installed a high end security system. As the MC’s story unravels, so might the details of her rape. If the reader has a chance to connect with her, what happened to her will carry more emotional weight.

        • Jennifer Eller-Kirkham says:

          Hi Jennifer, thanks so much for commenting. You and Eliza have articulated something that has worried me and I had thought about. I was hoping to get some feeback on this aspect and how readers would feel about it. You have given me much to think about and I am going to think long and hard about leaving the details of what happened to her until later.

  6. Hari Paruchuri says:

    I agree with Terah above that the first paragraph is not necessary. The second one sets the mood very well and is a good take-off. The third is where the engine is turned on. But I think a paragraph before the third is required.

    Many sentences are really nice and fresh. But some like “My cut throat had severed supporting ligaments, must have missed major vessels or I’d be dead.” are complex is what I felt. For example maybe it could be cut into two sentences where there is a comma now. It would help the pace. But overall a pretty nice one. I was drawn. I was reading till the end.

  7. Todd Roberts says:

    I don’t necessarily have a problem with rape or violence in literature (or else GRRM wouldn’t be on my bookshelf). I do agree that opening with *action* prior to a good setup is inadvisable. Make the character as interesting and real as possible, and then have the rape happen. I don’t think that you should start months after the rape, though that’s still better than starting here.

    I need more information about the plot before I could suggest possible setup scenes. Please PM me because this is an interesting story problem.

    As far as the writing goes, I think you are on the right track. I am more concerned about the plot engineering at this point. I wouldn’t bother tweaking the prose until you’re confident in your main arc.

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