Shaken to the Core

On February 5, 1783, a 7.5 to 8.0 magnitude earthquake  struck southern Italy, leveling over 100 villages and creating a 100 foot wide mile-long ravine. A second tremor hit at midnight, prompting a tsunami which killed thousands of people who lived along the Italian coast. All told about 80,000 people died.

Although my novel (which at last has a title!) City of Ages, does not include any earthquakes, it starts with a disaster of even greater magnitude.

In September, during a harvest moon, the plague came. It struck first in the home of a cloth merchant, and spread with deadly efficiency, jumping from child to adult in what seemed like hours. A headache and general feeling of weakness came first, followed by the sweats and tormenting body aches, and then, in the latter stages, fits of trembling, difficulty breathing, and the final stillness of death. One by one the villagers of Justus’s family’s estate died in agony, and the white-swathed corpses lined the pathways in increasing numbers until at last he directed them to cease digging individual graves and dig communal graves instead. All day and into the night the church bells tolled and weeping could be heard from the white-washed chapel.

When his family fell ill – his mother, father, and three brothers – he nursed them as best as he could. By then the doctors with their potions and poultices and the wise-women with their herbs and infusions had all died off, the first of many. He watched in increasing horror as his dear ones writhed in pain, pleading for him to quench their thirst and cool their fevered brows, weeping and trembling even as he wept and trembled alongside them in grief. He waited for the symptoms to show up on his own body, the lethargy and the sweating, and the violent death. He waited, hollow with loss, moving slowly but surely as he tended the goats and cattle, ground the grain for bread, and made soup to quench the thirst that afflicted him. With some relief, he fell ill a week after his youngest brother died. But then, to his astonishment, he recovered quickly and with no lingering aftereffects.

Death had passed him by.

This snippet of my work in progress (thus, WIPpet) is posted as part of a challenge hosted by K.L. Schwengel. Comments, reactions, impressions, constructive criticisms – all are treasured, should you choose to provide them. Visit my fellow WIPpet participants here, or join the fun yourself:


22 thoughts on “Shaken to the Core”

  1. Wonderful excerpt Xina Marie. So sad for your character to lose all those family members. It just reminds us how fragile life can be.

  2. Love the way you pick your snippets with historical events related to the date! I was thinking about doing that today, but then opted for the traditional method.

    Good, bleak snippet, but I had some mixed reactions, which mostly boiled down to: with all that death I should be feeling more. Maybe consider reorganizing to bring in Justus’ pov earlier, so the death isn’t as abstract?

    1. It’s kind of fun to see what happened on WIPpet Wednesdays, though sometimes I admit that I’m too braindead to figure out how to tie it into my book, lol.

      Oooooh – I think you have something here about the beginning. Most excellent idea! I’m starting on the final polish before it goes out to beta readers tomorrow and I will deal with this first thing. Thank you so much for such excellent feedback! It’s gold from a fellow writer as skilled as you!

  3. I love this description, ” the final stillness of death.” This was a very heavy piece, like a dark cloud. And I mean that in a good way. 😉 I agree with Ruth, though. Making it more personal earlier… still,excellent writing.

      1. Stories can’t be all butterflies and sunshine. Not if they are being true to themselves. Unless, of course, it is a story about butterflies and sunshine. 😉

  4. Holy crap you FREAKED me out!! I didn’t read the year when you mentioned Italy had a massive earthquake on Feb 5. I have a friend who lives in Rome, and my heart started to palpitate, finger poised to go google the news, when I saw the year, and let out one long breath of relief.

    Then I continued to read, and… wow. Powerful words, powerful imagery. My emotion (perhaps started by the fear that Italy TODAY had a massive earthquake) fell to the world you described. The black plague and the holocaust are two historical events that don’t take much to pull at my heartstrings. You pulled at them well.

    1. Oh, dear! I’m sorry for the terrible fright! I would have been freaked out as well if I didn’t notice the date.

      Thanks for your kind words! It’s a beginning that is a bit of a downer, I suppose, but hopefully one that invites more reading.

  5. I love how vivid your extracts are and this one is no exception. Tinged with so much heartache though it’s really powerful. I really feel for Justus here – to witness your whole family suffer and die in front of you would be far worse than actually succumbing to the disease yourself.

    City of Ages – great title. It works so much better being shorter.

  6. I’m a bit torn here, Xina. I can see the virtue of making the opening sentences more personal, buuuuttttt…..

    I also loved the way you started from the distant view and slowly drew us in, almost like a camera shifting focus. It made the world real beyond our character’s perceptions.

    I can almost imagine Justus feels that he’s damned for being denied the peace of death.

    Now, having said that… I occasionally like to play a video game called NeverWinter Nights that starts much this way. Of course, in the game your character doesn’t get the disease, but so many around you do (finding a cure is your quest)… I’d never suggest you should play the game yourself, but I thought you might find the premise interesting, at least somewhat.

    1. Thanks as always for your comments! What you said about starting distantly and drawing the reader in is exactly what I initially hoped to do, but I know that such a device can be rather unusual/old-fashioned, perhaps. I actually worked on this section today and although I didn’t make many changes, I think it’s better … or at least I hope it is!

      Interesting to hear about the video game. I must confess, I can’t seem to get into video games as hard as I try. Now Scrabble and Words with Friends? I’m quite the addict!

      1. I think you nailed it with the device being old-fashioned, Xina. Still, used well, it’s powerful, imho.

        Video games aren’t for everyone. I like this one because I like the idea of D&D style games but seldom can make group sessions. This gives me a bit of that experience (the game even allows the player to make their own stories/quests, so it has been good for some of my world-building).

        I can’t do the social game thing–it eats all my time, and I never feel happy with myself afterwards.

  7. Xina,

    I can see the positives of what Ruth and Eden are saying, and I have a third take…

    I can see the opening drawing in for a bit – maybe the first deaths are rumors carried in, then it becomes personal to his estate and then his own family…

    But then, there is this:

    *He waited, hollow with loss,*

    I have felt this, on a smaller scale, when my fiance died, and then, years later, when my newborn son died.

    That is a powerful five-word phrase there…

    What comes after is weaker, to my perception, and robs some of the wallop of those five words. After that, what?

    Does he eagerly wait for the symptoms to intensify and release him from the hollowness? Is he angry to be spared? Does he break down, rage, go hollower still, or have an epiphany?

    “Death had passed him by” feels – I don’t know. Cliche, maybe, or obvious. I think an emotional assessment of some kind would carry on the powerful impact of the hollow loss.

    I’m not sure this makes the kind of sense I hoped it would – I’m tired, and have a migraine. Overall, it was a vivid and compelling piece, beautifully handled.

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I’m so sorry to hear about your fiance and your son – I can’t imagine the immensity of either experiences, nor really the immensity of losing one’s entire family as Justus did. I see what you’re saying, about the let down. I suppose my idea was that he was in such shock, such numb pain, that he simply checked out, emotionally and physically. Which I deal with in the next line. I chose not to put that in this excerpt, though (mainly for a nit-picky reason – I haven’t yet named the town he’s from!).

      Sorry to hear about your migraine. Hope you’re better now.

  8. The premise and the writing is beautiful. I quite enjoy the narrowing of focus because it gives scale to the tragedy. It is his personal tragedy to survive, but it shows in quite a small space the world he remains in too.

    I enjoy characters forged through suffering, because they have to draw deep to move forward and whether they fly or fall you can always connect to their emotion.

  9. Wow! That’s a powerful couple of paragraphs! I love the way it starts off with the wider picture and then zooms in on Justus’ personal experience.

    And I wanted to add, I also love how you link your excerpts to the date. Might have to steal that idea when maths isn’t working for me.

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