Excerpt from Breath and Bones by Susann Cokal, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Breath and Bones

A Novel

by Susann Cokal

Breath and Bones
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  • First Published:
    May 2005, 416 pages
    May 2006, 400 pages

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"Keep your arms up," Albert reminded her, and she brought her mind back into Nimue. I am a magical nymph, she told herself. I am enslaving an ancient wizard. I do not wish to work on a farm again.

Her raw lungs and full bladder only increased in discomfort, but she stood steadfast and focused on Albert’s hands as they performed their infinitely delicate work, drawing her. He had beautiful fingers, long and bony, with a rainbow of paint always under the nails, and to Famke’s mind they produced wonders. They had drawn her as an earthly Valkyrie, in a cloak made of swans’ feathers (and nothing else); painted her as a nearly naked Gunnlod, the loveliest of the primordial Norse giants, watching over the three kettles of wisdom in a deep deep cave (Albert seemed to be very fond of caves). And now this Nimue, a wizard’s lover, who could be from Scandinavia but would be of great interest to the English critics who could make Albert’s fortune. Famke had never heard of Merlin or of Nimue, but Albert was teaching her a great deal about the mythology of her people. He liked to set her lessons from the traveler’s guidebooks scattered over the mantel.

"Maiden’s blood," Albert said, repeating. He picked up a dry brush and ran it over the sketched Nimue. Famke watched from the corner of one wide eye as the charcoal lines blurred, and in blurring, came to a more vivid sense of life. It never failed to fascinate her, this transformation from paper and coal into human figure. Her figure.

She maintained the pose until, some minutes later, Albert opened a few tubes of paint and splotched a page with shades of weak blue and stark white, marking out the rhythm of color. It was clear there was to be a lot of ice.

With this, Albert nodded to her; she was through. Famke stepped off the little platform, looking askance at the pillows she’d been posing with; she and Albert did not have many, and she knew they wouldn’t be sleeping with these until the painting was finished or abandoned. They must keep their pose, too.

"What shall I call this one?" Albert asked conversationally as he mixed a thin, bright red. "The Revenge of Nimue . . . The Ravishment of Merlin . . . "

Famke took the chamberpot from under the bed and, at last, went to a corner to relieve herself. Albert could go on in this vein for hours, and he usually chose the most descriptive and least pronounceable title possible ("The Violated Nimue, Enraged, Casting Spells Over Merlin’s Prison") for works he would eventually disown. Very little of Albert Castle’s labor seemed to yield the results he desired, what he saw in his mind—a pantheon of celestial nymphs and robust goddesses, all with Famke’s white skin and wild hair, demonstrating the myths of power and betrayal that had moved him ever since he opened his first book of poetry. He expected perfection and disappointed himself each time he picked up pencil or brush; and each time, the gesture grew in importance: His father had sworn to support Albert only up to his twenty-fifth birthday, which would come on the first day of April. If Albert did not manage to produce a salable painting in that time, he would have to join his father’s pencil-manufacturing company. But before any painting was half done, he deemed it unsatisfactory; he broke them all over his knee or tore them to bits, then took off at a run through the streets to purge his frustration.

Even now Albert picked up a heel of their morning bread and rubbed it over half the sketched page, erasing some mistake.

The one scrap that Famke had managed to preserve hung in a dark corner above their washtub, where he would be least tempted to destroy it. This was the first sketch he had ever made of her, and Famke looked up at it as she relieved herself:a farm girl, a tender of geese and pigs, with the cap pushed back on her head and a butterfly light in her eyes. Every detail was perfect; it was Famke exactly as she wished to see herself in those days, and it had taken him only an hour to complete.

Excerpted from Breath and Bones© Susann Cokal. Published by Unbridled Books. All rights reserved

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