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First Page: In the Kingdom of Persephone (Fantasy)

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I saw Death take my one hundred and six years old great-grandmother. She was sleeping on the couch across from me. One minute, Great Grandma was breathing and the next, Death was in the living room. Great Grandma stopped whistling through her nose. I saw Death standing over her, passing a careful hand over her once, twice, three times. Then Death stood still, head bowed, as if in prayer. I was surprised and now, two minutes later and huddled into the corner of my loveseat, I am still surprised.

They say that Death carries a scythe and dresses in black. Death’s face is hooded and he is all shadow, all menace. He is the spine-tingling presence of dreaded nightmares.

They are wrong. Death is a girl, an almost-woman girl like me. She is short and not beautiful, but her skin glows with a soft light. She wears a simple, knee-length white dress. I might think her a ghost, but for the power of her presence. She is Death. She is an entity beyond my understanding. Yet she is not intimidating, precisely. She might even be sorrowful, but that’s not the main thing. What sticks in my mind is that she ignores me, but I keep gawking—and finally she glances up. Her eyes widen; she is stunned that I can see her. As we look at each other, curious and frightened, something in the air changes. This is an impossibility so intense, I can digest it only as something absurd: Death and a living mortal, caught unawares by each others’ presence, begin a staring contest.

Both are afraid to lose.

And Death laughs, silently. She has a smile that engages her whole face, but it is so fleeting I almost miss it. She looks down again, as if shy. When she steps away from Grandma’s body, her face is in a not-quite-anything expression again. She inclines her head to me, very slightly, and turns around, her dress swishing around her knees. She vanishes.

My name is Ria and I’m seventeen. I have seen ghosts all my life, but I’ve never seen Death until now. But then, no one ever died before my eyes, either.

I have seen ghosts all my life, and even talked to some. There are people out there like me—more than you might think. There are also fakes, of course. And yet it’s a funny thing. Many people can see ghosts, and so many others lie about seeing ghosts—but no one ever talks about seeing Death.

Great Grandma was asleep when she died. If she had seen that young, innocent girl come to collect her soul, what would she have done? Think it was only a dream? Snort in amusement? Maybe even hug her, because Great Grandma had been sick a long time and had come home waiting to die.

I don’t know what my Great Grandma would have done. I’m not sure who won the staring contest. Death looked down first, but that was after she had been brave enough to laugh.

I wish I had been brave enough to return her final nod.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

16 Comments

  1. Marianne McA
    Apr 07, 2012 @ 07:31:03

    This is a ymmv type of comment: my problem with this passage is that her great-grandmother has just died, and there’s no grief in the passage.
    And that might make sense: someone who talks to ghosts would have different feelings about death, and there’s no reason to suppose the protagonist was close to her great-grandmother. But still, I feel a bit repelled by her reaction.

    It’d work better for me if there was a longer passage of time between the death and her reflecting on her experience: if she’d sat with the body for a few hours first – had some sort of emotional reaction to both the death and meeting Death before this very cool, factual recollection of the event. Her surprise doesn’t feel like enough.

  2. DS
    Apr 07, 2012 @ 08:30:48

    I read it through without stopping to nit pick which is relatively rare. Going back and looking again I did wonder why the great grandmother was sleeping on a couch.

    However, I liked the personification of death. It made me think of the Australian White Ladies Funerals– female staffed funeral homes where the directors are dressed in white. I thought it was an interesting idea when I first ran into it and I certainly think it would be a nice alternative now I have had a deal with a few traditional funeral homes.

    I’m not sure that grief is always the first response to the death of a loved one. I have found that sometimes it is relief. Grief comes later.

  3. Patricia
    Apr 07, 2012 @ 09:21:10

    Not a comment on the piece itself, but I agree with @DS that grief is often not the first reaction when someone dies. My 99 year old grandmother recently passed away, and while I was sad I was not overwhelmed with grief at the news. It had very much been expected, and her death meant both that she would not suffer anymore and that my mother, her only daughter, could move forward and no longer have to oversee the process of death.

    Also, until her last week in hospice care, my grandmother slept every night on her couch for at least a decade. She said it was more comfortable and easier to get in and out of. So, that part of the story seemed utterly unremarkable to me.

  4. Tamara Hogan
    Apr 07, 2012 @ 09:38:17

    I tend not to like first person POV, nor teenage protagonists, but I read this straight through without stopping. I loved your voice, the way you personified Death, and the subtle smidge of foreshadowing supplied by the fact that Death seems surprised Ria can see her. I had no issue with Ria’s seeming lack of reaction to her great-grandmother’s death.

    I’d read on. Beautifully done.

  5. Darlynne
    Apr 07, 2012 @ 09:39:16

    I loved this, which is going to be no help whatsoever to you as a critique, but I loved the whole thing. Can I have more? None of it was expected and I very much understood the surprise before the grief, especially for someone as old as Great Grandma.

    “One hundred six years old” is a single descriptor and should be written as one-hundred-six-year-old, an adjective, no “s” after “year”. There, something to offer as criticism. Now, keep writing and thank you!

  6. jch
    Apr 07, 2012 @ 10:17:50

    I really enjoyed this, too. Everything about Great Grandma and her death, including the protagonist’s reaction, seemed natural to me. You made it clear that she had essentially come home to die; it was not unexpected, thus not traumatizing.

    I liked the youthful innocence with which you described Death. At risk of dating myself, it brought to mind the old Twilight Zone episode with Robert Redford as a very unexpected version of Death (with obvious differences, but similar basic idea, I believe).

    Other than the error Darlynne mentioned, the only other thing I could nitpick would be the repetition of the phrase “I have seen ghosts all my life.” Other than that, I felt it was well-written and engaging.

    You drew me in from the beginning and never lost my interest, which is difficult to do with a first page. An intriguing beginning — I wish I could read more! :)

  7. Shy
    Apr 07, 2012 @ 10:25:14

    I have no complaints. I love both the voice and the content.

    Well done!

  8. Author on Vacation
    Apr 07, 2012 @ 10:43:51

    I am absolutely sold. If this were a sample of a published work, I’d buy it right now.

    I disagree the narrator should be overwhelmed with grief. I recently lost my own grandmother who I loved very much. The feelings I associate most with her passing are grief/unhappiness I felt when I first understood her health was declining. When the hospital alerted us she’d suffered a heart attack and was unlikely to regain consciousness, I cried in my bed at night. When I went to visit her in hospice care, I felt frightened and baffled because I no longer experienced awareness of her personal presence. Her body was there, still breahting, but I felt no sense of her actual self. I couldn’t even smell her.

    I was disturbed and frightened, thinking, “Dear God, if she isn’t here, where is she?” I even started looking around (the room, the hospital, outside the hospital) for any sign she was still with us in some way.

    After her passing — I should say, her body’s passing — I accompanied my mother to clean out her rooms. When I began handling her clothes, I started crying. I don’t know why. I felt incredibly selfish and foolish, too. But that’s how it was for me.

    So no, people don’t have to “melt down” the instant they understand a loved one has died. It can be a very complex experience. And if I saw a spirit like the one described in this book, I’d be mystified and curious, too.

    Keep working on this. You’ve got tremendous promise. All I ask is that you avoid “doctoring” any mythology or mythological figures in your work. Nothing turns me off a writer faster than that.

  9. Elyssa
    Apr 07, 2012 @ 11:07:02

    I loved this. The only thing that niggled me was that, at first, I thought the voice of the piece was a teenaged male until I got to my name is Ria line. I was actually a little more intrigued when I thought it was a male voice–maybe I was hoping for a reverse Hades myth?–so when it got to the Ria line, I thought oh, this is going to be a girl who can see death and possibly becomes death herself story. I’m not sure if I’m right or not; however, I really loved your overall voice that I’d end up reading it–and loving whatever the story ends up being.

  10. Elyssa
    Apr 07, 2012 @ 11:19:14

    As to the grief thing that other commenters have mentioned…..I disagree that she would be showing grief right away. I believe grief hits in different ways, and people deal with deaths in very different ways, too. My grandmother’s death didn’t hit me until I saw her in the casket, and my other grandmother’s death didn’t hit me until the day of the funeral. So I don’t think necessarily that grief would hit you right away–and she’s also just seen Death and I think that would shock any of us out of whatever emotional state we had been in.

  11. hapax
    Apr 07, 2012 @ 14:14:40

    I, too, was engaged from the start.

    The only (slight) criticism I’ve got is that the rhythm of the first sentence seemed … off … to me.

    Maybe leave it at “I saw Death take my great-grandmother.” Then, if you want to, you could work that information into the sixth paragraph, something like, “Great-Grandma’s name was Bessie and she was one hundred and six years old, and she never saw anything in death to be scared of. My name is Ria and I am seventeen years old …” etc.

    This (or something else appropriate for your characters) also would be a nice way of working in a little snippet of background and character for your heroine’s family. Right now I get a sort of vague feeling that Ria comes from a long line of “country people” used to seeing ghosts, but I’m probably drawing that from reading other, similiar books.

  12. cbackson
    Apr 07, 2012 @ 16:26:29

    Hm. I wasn’t bothered by the lack of immediate grief, but to me, this passage suggested that the narrator was looking back on this event after significant time had passed. Two minutes later didn’t make sense to me. Two minutes ago isn’t a “then”, it’s a “now.”

    But I’m not the target audience for this; teenager narrators turn me off.

  13. Courtney Milan
    Apr 07, 2012 @ 22:33:44

    I’d buy this in a heartbeat.

  14. Amy
    Apr 08, 2012 @ 18:53:34

    I found it intriguing and well-written. The only thing that pulled me out was the repetition of the “I see ghosts all the time” line. I’d keep reading.

  15. the author
    Apr 08, 2012 @ 23:58:55

    Thank you for taking the time to comment! I also much appreciate the frank discussions on how death affects us–will do a lot more thinking on attitudes/emotions. Ria never really knew her great grandma, by the way. That’s why she was more surprised than saddened. She doesn’t find out about real grief until later.

  16. Nonny
    Apr 10, 2012 @ 00:55:58

    This probably isn’t much help, but if this were a published book, I would be buying it immediately.

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