I hate puzzles.
This goes back to my childhood, to those achievement tests the schools insisted you take. My bane (besides spelling) was spatial relations. Those line drawings that you had to fold into a box mentally were the downfall of my existence. Everything else was excellent. Then there were spatial relations where seventy-five percent of my age cohort got it better than me.
I could not do that task. Oh, I could visualize an empty room filled with boxes of all sizes and shapes. I could move those containers. I could even open them and see what was inside. Please, though, do not give me a pallet of corrugated flats and say, ‘What will these boxes look like?’ I could imagine a world and bend it to my needs.
So not taking 1,000 pieces and making a picture was no loss for me.
I swiftly moved from that to trying to understand my world. I learned I was a visual person and required an outlet for that creativity. Photography fit well, and after my father gifted me my first little camera when I was eight years old, I dove headlong into it. Boxes of processed slides (much cheaper back in the day than color prints) filled my bedroom.
The visual stimulated another part of my brain, the one controlling the written words. Describing what I saw enabled me to bring others the world spread out on that great gray plane behind my eyelids. My first real story was composed in Tenth Grade English (a pitiful science fiction morality tale about a man who messed with the water molecule).
Fast forward over forty-five years to my first toe dip into fiction—specifically Austenesque fiction. While being a journalist or writing advertising copy did require me to solve “puzzles,” those were more questions to which my work provided an answer.
Fiction is a different puzzle. Often—usually—there is a complete picture of a character or a plot, but it is jumbled like an unsolved Rubik’s Cube. The solution exists in a way, but the question remains about the component parts needed to make that full portrait. My biggest concern falls back to those early box-folding exercises. The I would get a box, but it would not be the box imagined by the test designer.
Is it authorial presumption to suggest that Darcy, Elizabeth, Anne, or Wentworth, whom I imagine, is the result of a single path? If we break them (or the plot) into their parts, can those pieces be reassembled to obtain the same effect? Or will they come together with a different image?
In the end, I conclude that there are a hundred paths to arrive at a Darcy, Elizabeth, Anne, or Wentworth, but only one to attain the singular nature of the characters I see.
Hence the puzzle. If chunks of plot and person are spread out in front of me, which pieces (remember that you do not have to use every single one) become what I see?
In my current Work-In-Progress, The Sailor’s Rest, I am working with Austen’s iterations of Darcy, Elizabeth, Anne, and Wentworth as starting points. My goal was to see how these four change as circumstances push against them. That presents a series of puzzles, of problems, that form the arc between the people we see at the ends of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. How will the women respond to the stress of the original plot crux? How will Darcy and Wentworth rise their altered circumstances? What pieces come together to achieve the answers?
I no longer despise these puzzles because I now understand that they are daubs of color on my palette that I can spread to build that picture that explains everything. These boxes aren’t those divined by another. They are mine alone, which I present to readers to see into my imagination.
Please enjoy these reunion scenes from The Sailor’s Rest that show the binary solutions for the tetrarchy. The path to the safe harbor had demanded thousands of pieces. Now they had come together.
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These excerpts are ©2023 by Donald P. Jacobson. Reproduction is prohibited.
From Chapter 35
Elizabeth greedily looked at the washtub, slowly being filled by a cabin boy, but then she shook away her avarice. Another needed its transformative properties. A healing mere, the pool might cleanse the body, but the dunking was destined to be a purification for a bruised soul.
Sophie smiled and followed Wilkinson out the door.
Elizabeth’s grime could wait. Darcy needed immediate attention lest the stain set and damage a cherished heirloom.
Scent penetrated and defined the realm in which he stood; lavender atop sage it was. As he returned to the world and the ravages of the day receded, he took in great gusts of nova caeli.[i]
His eyes were closed, but the lids unclenched. He, Darcy—Smith had been abandoned on Persephone’s gundeck—enjoyed light’s flickering passage from without that left veined afterimages.
His hands were grasped, first one and then the other. Sharp, coarse horsehair bristles worried them front and back. A stylus tenderly scrapped beneath his nails, releasing a coppery tincture that lingered for a moment, called up sentiments that quickly evaporated but, never-the-less, left a twinge in his belly.
A soft soprano hummed in accompaniment to the movements of a wet cloth about his torso. Warm water sloshed around his shanks as liquid sheeted from his skin.
The bath maiden—indeed, this was a woman’s touch—was fastidious in her attentions, working one section of his back and belly from an unfeeling commonness into tingling awareness. He could not recall when he had last been so connected to the world around him except…
At some point, he realized that he was nearly naked, wearing nothing but his slops which hung damply around his narrowed hips before this lady. Yet, there was all that was Vestal and nothing Cyprian about his situation. His arousal was a renewal of spirit, ethereal, not base, bathed as he was in soft light and peaceful aromatics.
A step from the Heavenly throne he was.
A gentle kiss on the inside of his right shoulder blade gave permission for his hands to reach behind and capture handfuls of a loving angel’s body to squeeze her against his spine.
His reward was trembling tears that salted his toughened hide.
Eyes now open, he turned and gathered his weeping life into a caress that had been months in the making.
From Chapter 37
She turned and spied his broad shoulders that defined a captain upon his quarterdeck. Then she quickly looked away, back over the prow, the foremast’s bulk insulating him from her eyes’ pressure. No, she could not impose herself. He would come to her when his heart could make itself heard. Until then, she would feed off his thrumming presence to draw solace and limn her world with love’s light.
Then, she stole another glance astern. He was gone!
Her eyes closed, Anne cast about her for he who again had been lost.
There: the scent of him, missing until Naiad raised Persephone
Not beyond a blue horizon. But here.
Pitch’s gummy dark.
Hemp’s browned grass.
Saltpeter’s acrid tang.
On land, she would have added the crispness of a gust skimming above rock-tossed surf, but those three told her he was near. A calmness bloomed in her center as she basked in the unique pool that described her Frederick much as the sound of her father’s footsteps signaled his and nobody else’s arrival.
The wind plucked at her shortened curls.
Then a finger captured one and twirled it to wrap itself around the digit, which, if crooked, would summon her from any distance. She tipped her head into his cupped palm, nuzzling her cheek into the horny skin, hard against the downy softness of her face. She felt the flush begin where his touch awakened her being, exploding outward to envelop her with a surge of incontestable need.
Am I being wanton to allow myself to succumb to what I have refused to countenance to avoid desire’s longing pain? This urge is God’s way of telling me that Frederick is my only. There never was one before him, for I surely never have been transported as I am now.
I am not a religious woman, but if a whisper in my ear said that this was a foretaste of Heaven, I would unquestionably believe that an angel had visited me.
Her journey through the wilderness since the Year Nine had been a test, a torment broken into two parts by a snowlit ridge. The first ordeal had withered when exposed to love’s uncompromising glare. Then she had been subjected to six months of extraordinary happiness, glorious with first impressions and discoveries. Her ancient self, so calcified from disuse, fractured and flaked away as she steeled herself against doubt from without—and within.
Anne’s bliss, that honied cup, was snatched away as her world collapsed into this most recent, agonizingly brief but remarkably deep chasm. The old Anne would have vanished into her comfortable warren like a plump coney seeking shelter from an eternal winter. Heartdeath had brushed its stygian cloak against her. But for the companionship of Lizzy, Sarah, Annie, and Sophie, Anne would have fitted out her chambers at the Great House at Uppercross, where she would poorly manage Mary’s children.
The old images, long clutched but never cherished, crumbled like a drying sandcastle, proving their weakness against the glory that was Wentworth’s love for her.
His calluses dragged against her cheek as she turned her face into the fondling cushion to bestow a soft lingering kiss.
[i] Fresh air. Darcy is highly educated. He might think in Latin. Mr. Bennet, of an older generation, likely would have thought in Greek.