Opium Beds and Butterflies
In an interview with On The Road, Diana Gabaldon touches on “kernels” in writing. This is where you have some little bit of something that triggers and image or thought in your writing and you build a scene around it. Listen to the interview, it’s well worth it.
I’ve run into several of those while researching The Rain Crow. I knew Lorena was going to be summoned to Baltimore by her mother who is feigning a dread illness to get her there. Berta Dobbs (she has retaken her maiden name since divorcing Lorena’s father) is a master at manipulation and the dramatic. Why is she like this I wondered? She’s the youngest child and was ill a lot, so she got pampered and spoiled by parents and siblings who thought they were going to lose her. She’s learned to use illness as a crutch to get what she wants even though she’s as now healthy as the proverbial horse.
Mr. McKenzie, Lorena’s father, indulged her to a point, but recognized what she was doing and refused to allow his daughter to become the same kind of woman, telling Lorena when she was five and throwing a temper tantrum, “I have one spoiled child in this house, I’ll not have another,” and then tanning her hide for her tantrum. Berta flounced to her room and locked herself in for three days, which did little good as Mr. McKenzie simply ignored her.
So, I am getting a clearer picture of both Berta and Kevin McKenzie. Lorena, thankfully, has taken more after he independent father and will need that to survive the upcoming war. I knew I wanted to have a vivid scene when Lorena arrives at her mother’s house. Berta is all about the drama.
First off, Berta sends dramatic letters to Lorena, she’s in terrible health. She may be dying. Lorena must come soon. Lorena agrees because she’s consented to become a courier and smuggle contraband. Visiting her mother is the perfect excuse to secure a pass to Baltimore after the war starts. Though she doubts she can actually do any spying, she’ll keep her ears open for any information that might be of use to the south. I know there will be two trips north at least before the first battle of Manassass, otherwise known as Bull Run. The second will be after a “suicide” at the plantation and Lorena needs to meet with someone to get a translation done on a message that was left.
I know Berta is going to really lay it on thick when Lorena arrives. She has more than a visit in mind. She’s going to try and convince Lorena to sell the properties in Virginia and South Carolina and move to Baltimore where she thinks her daughter will be safe. She’s also going to do everything she can to break Lorena and Captain Callahan up.
So, when Lorena arrives, Berta is laid out spectacularly ala Rosetti’s The Death of Beatrice.
I know Berta will be in the parlor so Lorena sees her immediately. What kind of bed? Something unusual. More than a daybed. What’s more dramatic than a Chinese opium bed?
What does it look like? I can picture it in my mind. It’s ornately carved, with red lacquer and gilt. The posts are heavy and the end panels are also thick, solid with more ornate carving, painted scenes, and gilding. Do I want it canopied? No, not quite that large. Up about three feet so servants can gather around her. The back comes up about three feet tall to match the end panels. It’s like a very large, very gaudy coffin with the front gone and no top.
What time of day is it when Lorena arrives? Afternoon. She’s coming by carriage, so she would have had to be far enough away to take a few hours yet to get there when she stopped for the night. Why is time of day important? Lighting. The parlor is on the left side of the entry hall and has a large bay window with nearly floor to ceiling glass. There are maroon velvet drapes drawn back and hooked, with sheer lace panels over the windows allowing lots of light in. The light will shine on the bed and Berta.
There are a lot of pillows on the bed. Berta is in a nightgown and a brocade robe. What color? The nightgown is ivory the robe is dark; blue to contrast with the dark red pillows. The brocade robe reflects the light shining through the windows when Berta moves.
Why does the bed have such solid posts and end panels? I examine the bed. Ah, because it has hidden drawers and compartments. There’s a little desk that comes down from one end panel for a secretary to make notes while sitting on the floor. Interesting. I’m not certain how that comes into play, but it will make it into a scene later.
What’s in the drawers? One of the secret compartments in a post comes open while Lorena is having the bed taken apart to move upstairs and there’s something in it. She’s told her mother the bed probably came from an opium den and there are drugs hidden in it. No, no drugs. A piece of jewelry. What kind? Jade. A necklace? No, a pin. A dragon? What do dragons symbolize? Power, strength, and good luck. Well, that might work, but what would be more intriguing? A butterfly. Butterflies symbolize enduring love.
Aha, that works. Later in the book, (Keep in mind I’m chunk writing, so I write it as it comes to me.) Lorena goes to visit a friend who has lost her husband. She was committed to an asylum and has recently been released. Lorena sees her in the garden with a blue butterfly on her shoulder and laughingly tells her it looked like the butterfly was whispering secrets to her. Why would a butterfly be on her shoulder? Some people believe butterflies can be spirits of loved ones or even vampires. Who would the spirit be? Not her husband. Ah, she lost a little boy. He drowned in the pond she’s staring out at.
Her friend says in all seriousness, “Oh, he was.” She then tells Lorena the butterfly is the spirit of William and he has told her to tell Lorena she’s right, Mr. Stossel didn’t kill himself only no one knows about the suicide yet. dun dun dun.
The butterfly has made two more appearances, but I won’t go into that here. The butterfly was another example of “kernels” at work. It certainly wasn’t anything I planned. I just saw the scene in my head. Emily was sitting outside in a garden, dressed all in mourning black, with a brilliant blue butterfly on her shoulder. My mind starts asking questions about the butterfly and the garden and Emily’s story and the butterfly’s unfold.
So, here is a jade butterfly that symbolizes enduring love and the butterfly theme continues. Lorena gives it to her mother who declines it saying she had one Lorena’s father gave her when they were courting. He had sacrificed greatly to buy her an expensive butterfly brooch she had to have. She later destroys it in one of her fits. No, she doesn’t need it. She tells Lorena to keep it. This revelation about Bert and McKenzie is new, I hadn’t seen this before I started writing the scene. I’m learning a lot more about the couple.
We have a bed with secret compartments and a butterfly. What good is this? Lorena might need a place to hide secret messages later that she is carrying south. I now know there’s going to be a scene with Berta Dobb’s house being searched because Lorena is suspected of being a spy. My mind goes spinning off on that tangent, but I won’t go down that road here. Now we know why this gaudy bed was important.
What about the butterfly? An insignificant thing. Lorena decides to wear the pin to a military ball. A captain who has taken an interest in her comments on it and asks if someone special gave it to her. She says, yes, her mother. He then tells her they symbolize enduring love, she must be very special to her mother. He’s relieved she has no significant other, seemingly. This suits Bertie to a tee as he’s from a well-to-do and powerful family and exactly the kind of man she’s looking to hook Lorena up with. Wheels start turning.
In case you’re wondering, yes, when something pops up like this, I explore the “area”. It’s like I’ve been put in a new room. I walk around touching things and wondering why they are there. Details are revealed. Quite frequently another scene will trigger.
So, here is what came from pondering about an opium bed. There’s much more, of course, but this is where Lorena is threatening her mother if she catches her in her deathbed again.
With Dr. Frain on his way, and me somewhat recovered from my shock of discovering he was the Cardinal, my contact in Baltimore, I set about getting Mother out of her deathbed. She was still sprawled across the garish bed, one hand laid across her brow and the other dramatically at her breast. Three servants hovered about in case she might gasp her last.
“Dear Lord, Mother. This is not Rossetti’s Death of Beatrice. These people have things to do as do you. Get up out of that monstrosity of that bed now. Someone fetch Sam so he can get this thing out of the parlor.”
Bertie Dobbs sat up, frowning. “Lorena, it’s not like I can recover instantaneously. These things take time.”
“Of course you can. Now get up. You heard Dr. Frain. You need to be up and about. The next time I see you laid out in that thing, you had best be well and truly dead because I am going to have it put in the yard like a Chinese bier and set it alight.”
She waved a hand dismissively shooing servants and the very idea away. “Don’t be foolish. I’m quite sure lighting a funeral bier in the yard is against the law in Baltimore.”
“Then we’ll take you down to the bay at sunset and cast you adrift on your bed like Charon ferrying you across the Styx. It will be very dramatic.”
“The bed would probably sink and I’d just be bobbing around the bay like an untethered buoy in my shroud with a raven pecking at my bones.”
“Oh, even better. You’d be legendary. Your tattered corpse would bob up against a ship, tap, tap, tapping like a portend of doom.
“The look out nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping
Berta Dobbs was gently rapping, floating ’bout from ship to shore.
“Tis Bad News Berta,” he cried out, “tapping ‘pon our hull for sure.”
Death, disaster, and nothing more.
Floats the maven, ever more.”
“Maven. Is that the best you can do? I told your father not to let your read that horrible Poe. It’s positively warped your mind. I swan. You have no respect whatsoever.” She hauled herself out of the bed and threw the brocade robe about her like a great cloak.
I shrugged. “It’s the best I could do off the top of my head. Think about it. People will talk about the legend of Berta Dobbs for years. You’ll be famous. Either way, I do not want to see that monstrosity in the parlor again, nor you claiming it for a deathbed. Understood? Now someone go fetch Sam and get it upstairs out of sight.”
Lorena sounds like my kind of lady. No nonsense, and yet a sense of humor.