Part One: The Story of the Birth of the King of Pirates

The midwife hurried through a cold, foggy night. She came with an empty stomach, because a family who lived in the sailors’ district could hardly be expected to offer more than dinner as payment. She would roll her eyes, say she could think better with food in her belly, and food she would get. It was always better when there were already children in the house with older girls who could tend to a good meal, but it would have to do.
It will have to do, she mumbled to herself as she knocked at the door. A woman’s shrill cry cut the thick air. The midwife pushed the door open. It looked like dinner would have to wait.
An old sailor, sea-battered and red faced, held his young wife around the shoulders. He wore a red coat and she was in a white nightgown. It seemed to the midwife more like a murder scene than a birth.
“What are you doing to that poor girl,” the midwife cried.
“She will not stay in the bed. She says she wants to have the baby in the waves.”
The midwife looked out the tiny cottage window. Beyond were the cliffs, and the sea below. None of that could be seen through the fog. The midwife shook her head. “She will catch her death down there. And people would talk.”
The young woman moaned.
“Don’t worry love,” said the midwife. She stepped forward into the firelight. The mother to be was hardly more than a child. “We will not take you to the sea,” she whispered to the girl, “but there cannot be anything wrong with bringing a bit of the sea to you.” She turned to the husband. “Take a bucket down to the beach and fill it with water.”
“She will flee if I let her go.”
“She will die if she tries to fight you and birth at the same time.” The midwife looked the girl in the eye. “Will you stay if we bring you a bit of the sea?” The girl’s shoulders sagged. She nodded once, very slowly.
It was not the way things were done, the midwife thought, but if it settled the mother and gave the husband something to do…what could it hurt?
What could it hurt?
It was a quick and easy birth after that. The mother delivered a beautiful baby boy with jet black hair.
“He looks just like you,” the midwife cooed as she laid the babe on his mother’s chest.
“That is what I was afraid of.” The mother sighed.
“You are young, with a good birth and a healthy baby. There is nothing in the world to be afraid of.”
The mother sighed again.
The midwife sent the husband out to register the new child at the church while she tidied the room and waited for the afterbirth. She waited and waited, but nothing came.
“Maybe he is human after all,” the new mother murmured as she stroked the baby’s cheek.
“Of course he is a human baby,” the midwife tisked. A tired new mother might say strange things now and then, the midwife assured herself.
The mother jerked forward. The baby cried. The midwife took up the mess.
Except it was not a mess at all. It was a skin, soft and sleek and as silver as the moon. This was not right. Not right at all. The midwife took it to the fire. It was an unnatural thing, and it would be better to destroy it. She threw it on top of the flames.
“It cannot be destroyed,” the mother groaned from the bed. “Take it out with the tongs and drop it in the bucket of sea water. When you leave here, take it with you. Throw it over the cliffs, out into the waves.”
The midwife stood her ground. She crossed her arms and left the thing in the flames, but the mother was right, it did not catch fire.
“You should do as I say.” The mother’s voice was stronger this time, and carried an authority that belied her years. “There will be bad luck if you do not, for you and for your men. There are unseen things out beyond the waves that can take the fish from the nets. They can empty the cages. You do not want to be responsible.”
Oh, how the midwife wished she had never come to that house. She did not want their dinner. She did not want anything to do with these otherworldly things. Things one heard about in whispers. Things that lurked in fog and foam. She pulled the mass of silver from the flames, dropped it in the bucket and ran to the cliffs as fast as she could. She flung it far into the water. She made the sign of the cross. She made the pagan sign against the evil eye, the one her grandmother used to make. She tried to remove the notion from her mind of that beautiful baby boy with the jet black hair.
The next morning the fog lifted. It was unusually bright and sunny. The midwife looked out her window. She saw the husband in his bright, red coat walk down to the docks. He stepped onto a ship. He wore something strapped to his back. That something was topped with a tuft of jet black hair. The mother was nowhere to be seen.
Again, the midwife could not stop thinking of that boy. He would need praying for, if anyone ever did. The midwife went to the church and asked the priest to open the large dusty ledger that recorded all births and deaths. She told him to point to the name he had added the day before, and then to read that name. The priest lifted his thick finger from the spot. He read the name.
“Samuel.”

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What Matisse Taught Me About Writing

The Dance by Henri Matisse

 

During my last visit to New York, I had the chance to wander through the exhibit Matisse: In Search of True Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have always been inspired by the sensual, abundant work of Matisse.

As I walked through the exhibit, I began to wonder what his process as a painter could teach me about writing. If I am drawn to the way Matisse paints, what can his method and craft teach me about my own?

Matisse was often praised for the ease and fluidity of his art. In truth, painting was far from an easy process for him. He often reworked entire paintings many times over and used older works to generate new ideas. In later years, he hired a professional photographer to document his process so that he could analyze if he had gone off track or made progress with his work. He played with details, such as the curve of a woman’s back or her placement beside a stream.

I think that in writing terms, this is the beauty and sacred promise of editing. If I start to edit the first time I enter the blank page, I lose my flow. When I remind myself that it can always change and grow, that first inspiration is only one step on a very tall adventure, I believe that is the gem of Matisse and his process. After the initial impulse has been fully laid out, I can come back to rediscover and play with the structure and message it is meant to convey.

Craft is the act of honing an image, a word, a sentence, a movement until we have found something that shares an experience with others. To interrupt that first impulse with our own judgments is as negative and shortsighted as sending our work into the world completely unedited. Right in the middle of the two, there is the stuff creation is made of. Every time we touch and move a new piece, we are coming back in contact with something that is, in the very least, the wondrous collection of our own rich inner lives.

What Matisse taught me about writing is that I must allow myself time to be wrong. To be wrong as I first put words on the page. To make mistakes as I go through the editing process. To discover what happens when I change the pace or repeat a word or take something out. Matisse was so confident in this process of exploration he even paid to document his successes and failures with a professional photographer!

For all artists, the search for truth can be as inspiring as the first impulse and the finished work that bookend the making of a story.

Thanks to Matisse. He already said it so much better.

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