Posts Tagged ‘Pittsburgh’

A Wedding On Hallowe’en?

October 29, 2015

VF-TheBridesFinger-Illustration

Although Jewish tradition has no direct cultural association with Hallowe’en, there are plenty of spooky and sometimes funny tales to make your hair stand on end and foster a wee suspicion about the existence of demons. Like this one, called The Bride’s Finger. I adapted it from a sixteenth century Palestinian folktale* for my Visual Fiction series of stories, published between 1993-1997 in Focus Magazine, which was then a Sunday supplement in The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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The bright orange moon illuminated three young men as they walked in the forest surrounding the city of Safed in ancient Israel. Raphael, the oldest, was being teased by his friends, for this was the eve of his wedding. Raphael considered himself a fortunate fellow because Shira, the woman to whom he was promised, was the clever, beautiful daughter of the city’s wealthiest merchant.

Soon, they reached the edge of a river and sat down to rest. Their spirits were so high that at first, no one noticed the strange object protruding from the earth at their feet. Then, Tobias, the youngest man, grew quiet and leaned over to examine it, assuming  that it was some sort of root. Pointing at the object, he nudged his friends, “Raphi, Gideon; doesn’t this thing look like a finger?” he whispered. 

Still laughing, Raphael and Gideon teased their friend. “Sure, Tobi, it’s telling you to watch your step!” Tobias shrugged, then smiled slyly at Raphael. “Just like your clever bride will make you watch your step? Not to be outdone, Raphael announced smugly, ” I will put a ring on that ‘finger’ just to show it who’s the master around here!” He took off his ring and slipped it ceremoniously onto the protruding object. 

“Now, Raphi, say your vows!” the others urged him, snickering loudly. With mock solemnity, the bridegroom-to-be pronounced the Hebrew words which were required to seal a marriage. This he did three times, according to Jewish law. But as the last word slipped past his lips, he felt an odd chill slither down his spine…

Suddenly, the ‘finger’ began to emit an eerie, greenish glow, twitching and wriggling convulsively. The three young men jumped back, gasping in amazement, as the earth shuddered beneath them. Frozen in shock, they gazed horrified at the black chasm which opened at their feet. The greenish glow surrounding the ‘finger’ expanded at once, revealing a woman’s form wrapped in a ragged shroud, rising up out of the abyss! Her arms opened as if to embrace a lover.

“MY BRIDEGROOM!” she shrieked in a terrible voice staring straight at Raphael with lifeless eyes. Recovering their wits, the three friends screamed hysterically and ran for their lives, pursued relentlessly by her unearthly wailing. When they managed to reach their homes, they bolted every door and window, shuddering with relief at their narrow escape. 

In the morning, still trembling with fear, the young men met at Raphael’s house to discuss the consequences of their irreverent behavior. Deeply ashamed, they vowed to keep their horrible adventure a secret. Then, they parted soberly for Raphael’s ‘real’ wedding.

That evening, a delicious aroma of exotic foods accompanied the sounds of merriment and music flowing from the palatial home of the bride’s family. Many distinguished guests had gathered to witness this wedding that would unite the two wealthiest and most influential families in Safed.

Suddenly, as the rabbi cleared his throat to begin the ceremony, a spine-tingling shriek issued from the  marbled entrance. Screams of panic followed as the crowd rushed madly for the doors, leaving only the rabbi, the bride and groom and their immediate families gaping in horror at the apparition, who was clad only in her vermin-infested shroud.

The rabbi was the first to regain his composure. Shrewdly, he appraised the corpse, taking in her filthy, waist-length hair and curving, claw-like toenails. Then, he pointed accusingly at her. “Why have you left your grave and come to befoul our joyous celebration?” he thundered.

With a moan that was terrifying and desperate at once, the corpse pointed at Raphael and Shira, his bride-to-be, who cowered behind the rabbi. “I have come to claim what is mine!” she announced shrilly. “Why do you allow him to marry another when he is betrothed to ME?” She raised her hand to display the finger on which Raphael had foolishly placed his ring.

Wide-eyed in amazement, the rabbi turned to Raphael. “Is this true?” he demanded. Panic-stricken, the groom revealed the tale of the previous evening. With a worried expression, the rabbi pulled at his beard and asked the groom if he had pledged the sacred vow three times before two witnesses. Raphael nodded fearfully.

“Well, my son,” said the rabbi, shaking his head. “I am afraid that a rabbinical court must be gathered to resolve this, for according to our laws, a promise is a promise, and it looks as though ‘she’ is your wife!” Raphael’s eyes rolled up out of sight as he slid to the floor in a faint. Shira clutched her veil, sobbing uncontrollably. Their families stood by helplessly, begging the rabbi to release their children from the awful curse.

For days afterward, Safed buzzed with excitement over the ‘marriage of the living and the dead’. No one had ever heard of such a phenomena! Meanwhile, the rabbi searched feverishly for legal precedents to this case, but soon concluded that one would have to be set. He then sent for three renowned rabbis, requesting their presence at the rabbinical court that would convene three days later.

The people of Safed crowded the hall of the court. When all were seated, the Safed rabbi summoned the dead ‘bride’ to appear. Placing her under oath, he instructed her to recount the events in the forest and to swear that Raphael had indeed ‘married’ her.

Rachel Bat Shimon (for that was her name), clasped her translucent hands sincerely and did as she was told. The court then asked her if she would give up her claim on Raphael. A range of emotions appeared to cross her lifeless face and then coalesce into defiance. “While I lived,” she said tightly, “I had no opportunity to marry and was denied my happiness on earth! Therefore,” her voice rose to a shriek, “this marriage must be recognized and consummated! Unless,” she hinted craftily, “this court would prove that there is no justice in life or in death!”

The hall became very still, as the rabbis mulled over this statement. After a few moments, they decided to ignore her statement and continue the proceedings because the arcane interpretations her statement provoked would confuse the issue at hand. So they called on the parents of the bride and groom, placed them under oath and requested them to verify that their children had long been pledged to each other. Almost in unison, the fathers spoke, stating that their pledge was formed even before the birth of their children!

When all the witnesses had spoken, the rabbis retreated to a private chamber to make their decision. Raphael shivered in fear, casting sideways glances at his ghastly ‘wife’. She fluttered her eyelashes and bared snaggled yellow teeth in a horrific attempt to smile at him. Soon the rabbis filed back into the court. The Safed rabbi was the first to speak.

“According to our Laws, it is indeed true that Raphael made a valid vow of marriage in the presence of Gideon and Tobias, his two witnesses.” He paused for a moment and the large hall grew thick with terror. “However,” he continued, “we cannot deny that this wedding vow would invalidate his former betrothal, since the Law states that one vow may not contradict a prior one. Also, we have considered the bridegroom’s statement that his ‘vows’ were not intentional. And finally, as there is no precedent for a union between the living and the dead, these vows are not acceptable; for the ‘bride’ is obviously dead. Therefore, we declare this ‘marriage’ annulled!” At these words, Raphael grew weak with relief as applause erupted among the living.

But Rachel Bat Shimon, knowing she was defeated, released a shriek as bloodcurdling as it was pitiful. She then fell onto the floor and embraced death once again. Those present truly felt her loss and indeed, the rabbi ordered that Rachel be buried again properly, so that this tragedy would not recur.

At last, the rabbi of Safed gathered the bride, the groom and their families together to perform the true wedding. The distinguished guests, recovered from their shock and returned to witness the joyful ceremony. One one guest was missing: Death.

*The historical source of this tale is Shivhei ha-Ari (Hebrew), compiled by Shlomo Meinsterl (Jerusalem, 1905). My source was Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of The Supernatural, selected and retold by Howard Schwartz (Oxford University Press, 1988)

Note: For those who have followed my illustrated posts here, you might notice a marked difference in the drawing style of The Bride’s Finger and in Moving The Immoveable Feast published a few months ago. These were executed in sumi ink on scraperboard (scratchboard) and hand-colored with watercolor. No digital enhancements, whatsoever. Other drawings in the Visual Fiction series were done in a variety of art styles that in retrospect allowed me to understand the trajectory of my artistic development. As an illustrator, it’s sometimes instructive to look back not only to see where I’ve been, but where my Muse might decide to take me next!

Publish Or Perish? Yes and Never!

January 13, 2011

This month, with the release of Stitchburgh from my imprints, Imaginarius Editions and TatterTale Press, I’ve brought an old dream to life. While the majority of my posts here have highlighted individual images, I’ve often been asked the eternal question: where do you get your ideas? The short answer is from everyone and everywhere. But today, I thought you might like to know the story behind Stitchburgh which in itself is a clue:

One day in 1979, when my children were young, I attended an exhibition of handmade quilts. Created by a Pittsburgh craft guild called The Quilter’s Triangle, their intricate colors and narrative quality moved me to research the history of this unique and personal form of expression. As a mother and an illustrator, I was inspired to create a work of art for my children. It would reflect my new interest in quilts as it enriched awareness of our neighborhood and daily lives. So I created an illustrated alphabet that I decided to make into a quilted wall hanging. First, I drew and painted everything onto a large canvas. Then, I chose the stuffing and fabric backing materials that would be needed. Since my skills do not include needlework (except for the occasional darned sock), Mrs. Fava, an elderly Italian seamstress in my neighborhood helped me put it all together. At bedtime the next evening, I told my children the first of many stories about Stitchburgh, an imaginary world where everything is made from the colorful patches of an old quilt. In this original tale about a little blue goose named Fanny Featherbottom and her beloved Aunt Madras Goose, a writer, Madras’ stitchwriter suddenly breaks. Her story, now tangled into knots, is lost. You are invited to follow the writer and her niece as they adventure around Stitchburgh in search for it and discover where good ideas are really found!

After that quilting exhibition, it would be eighteen months before I finished the first illustrated version of Stitchburgh in 1980, but this version would be far from the last. After countless submissions and revisions of the illustrated manuscript by editors who were probably wondering what it would take to make me go away, I was sitting on a thick stack of rejection form letters from dozens of mainstream publishers and had reached the bottom of my proverbial barrel. Suddenly it hit me. Why waste my energy staying mad when I could put it to better use?

You see, I remembered a story about Beatrix Potter, the renowned children’s author. Though she came from a comfortably wealthy English family, she was harboring stories that begged to be let out to play. She too experienced rejection from several publishers at the time. So, she gathered up her pluck and determination, printed a small edition of them privately and simply distributed them as gifts to friends and family. The printer whom she retained for her project was Frederick Warne & Co. who soon came to understand the potential value of her work. In time, they went on to turn Peter Rabbit into an international media and merchandising star for generations to come. On the tail of this memory, I asked myself, ‘why accept rejection as the last word?’

So with renewed hope, I gathered up one of my illustrated manuscripts and made an appointment with a local commercial printer to see what was involved in publishing my ‘masterpiece’ on my own. When I explained to the print salesman what I wanted, he looked at me incredulously. ‘Just a small run of a full-color, 32-page children’s book? You have to be kidding; are you aware of the costs? I was beginning to get nervous as he listed everything necessary to publishing a book, from layouts to finished art, from films to plates and paper, to press time and bindery charges. I was sinking into my chair when he gave me the final figure. At the time, the minimum press run for a picture book was 5000 printed, bound copies of my book: $18,500. The huge quantity was necessary in order justify setting up the gigantic four color press and to establish a fair market price for each copy sold.

In 1980, this was equivalent to a down payment on a modest home! ‘And,’ he added ominously, ‘that’s only the tip of the iceberg; what about the costs of marketing and distribution? How are you going to handle that? Stunned into silence, I imagined myself buried under a mountain of 5,000 books and quietly thanked him for his time. I slunk out of the office, feeling like a complete idiot.
Never mind pursuing other bids on the job; they were all in the same ballpark. As I packed away my dreams and resumed my life as wife, mother, teacher and freelance illustrator, I was again discouraged, but still hoped that I could somehow, someday make it happen.

Myriad other projects kept me busy over the years and in time, even as I illustrated other writer’s books for mainstream publishers, I cooked up some new ones of my own. During these years, print technology was advancing so that my early self-publishing experience would become an anachronism. While there had always been small private publishers snootily referred to as ‘vanity presses’ or ‘subsidy publishers’, authors who retained their services were not taken seriously. Rather, it became a stigma as their work was presumed to be substandard by the mainstream industry and therefore unpublishable.

However, early in 2000, as I began to explore the growing self-publishing industry, the mystique associated with mainstream publishing became more transparent. With major changes in the tax laws and the decline of the world economy, authors were no longer treated as celebrities unless they were entertainment media stars or prominent political figures. We could no longer depend on publishers to cover the expenses of heavily promoting our books. With a few exceptions, it looked as though mainstream publishers were not much more than glorified printers with the presumed aura of ‘marketing caché. To make matters worse, the giant bookstore chains on whom they depended for their marketing and distribution venues were struggling financially. These began to close many of their brick and mortar establishments and not surprisingly, corporate mainstream publishing is quaking in its boots. In addition, self-publishing, with ‘print-on-demand’ technology at its core is a rapidly growing industry that, partnered with the vast online merchant network is proving to be their formidable competition.

Happily, the vanity press stigma was being obliterated by the developing print technology because authors who became literate in its techniques could now publish their work with the newly emerging “print on demand’ industry. Though it would take me years to feel comfortable with the tools of computer aided design and sophisticated graphics software, I was fascinated to observe how these were driving a paradigm shift in the way books are produced, marketed and distributed.

Last year alone (2010), 764,448 self-published titles appeared – an increase of 181 percent from 2008. That compares with 289,729 titles from traditional publishing houses. These numbers come from the R.R. Bowker Co., the agency that grants ISBN numbers and compiles the bibliographic data that must appear in your book before you can release it for distribution. Such information is necessary for booksellers and libraries to catalogue and identify your book in the vast publishing marketplace.

Online companies such as CreateSpace, AuthorHouse, Blurb, Lulu, iUniverse and XLibris have made it relatively easy and affordable to put your ‘masterpiece’ out in the market. There are gigabytes of information out there comparing profit and loss to authors in both self and mainstream publishing, and you might want to look at these as you decide whether to self-publish or continue to submit your manuscripts to mainstream publishers. But numbers can be overwhelming and can do much to squelch your desire to venture into this market as an author.

As a typical artist and writer consumed by their art, I gave these figures a cursory nod, shrugged my shoulders and became absorbed in my fantasy of self-publishing. I worked to enhance my technological skills and happily imagined the fame and fortune my efforts would generate. I published my first effort, The Alchymical Zoodiac: A Celestial Bestiary in 2009 under my own imprint, Imaginarius Editions.

Though my sales of The Alchymical Zoodiac to date have just covered my expenses, I decided that after 31 years, Stitchburgh was still begging to become a reality. Paraphrasing the immortal words of Star Trek’s Captain Jean Luc Picard, I decided to “Make it sew!” Maybe at some point, if they still exist, a mainstream publisher will become interested in what I have done and consider producing a subsidiary edition and ancillary products. Maybe even, some bright star at Pixar might see animation film potential in it. You never know. But most encouraging are the kind words and support from all of you! Both Stitchburgh and The Alchymical Zoodiac may be purchased @my webfolio via PayPal: http://www.winnlederer.com