... tuberculosis, love, and art in the Wild West
Endorsements, Description, Thoughts
"Riveting." —Library Journal
"Hilarious, bawdy, and deliciously fun reading." —Barbara Hoagland, The King's English, Salt Lake City, Utah
"A big, passionate fun book full of twists and myths and a great heart. Escapism has never been so intelligent, inventive, or (s)heroic!!" —Sandra Scofield
"It's almost impossible not to be amused, then intrigued and finally impressed with the heroine of Susann Cokal’s new novel, Breath and Bones….Cokal has a special gift for starting many of her chapters with lines that zing. Actually, each begins with some sort of quoted matter, but it is Cokal's own prose that arrests….At various points in its narrative, Breath and Bones elicits laughter, empathy, shock. But Cokal pulls our strings while maintaining a consistent, authoritative voice; she is sure of herself without being arrogant or chilly. Essentially, this is a book about art, flesh and spirit—and Cokal delves into all three areas of her inquiry with wit but also heart." —John Mark Eberhart, The Kansas City Star
"Cokal's rich language and ability to craft an intriguing tale and heroine will pull readers along as they hope for the heroine's happiness." —The Rocky Mountain News
"A poetic, comic, tragic, and surreal story of art, love, and searching." —Richmond Magazine
"[W]ithin it lies a historical richness that is Cokal's greatest strength, and which she used just as well in her first novel, Mirabilis." —Megan Milks, PopMatters
"Since her birth, Famke bewitches all those around her with her unique beauty. Sister Birgit favors Famke in the Danish orphanage; childhood friend Viggo saves Famke from scalding her hands in a pot of soap; lover Albert immortalizes Famke in a painting of Merlin's temptress Nimue. Albert soon abandons his muse, taking his masterpiece to London in search of recognition, leaving Famke to rely on her charms for help in finding him. She swiftly converts to Mormonism, convinces the leader to pay her passage, then promises him marriage. Her quest will take her to nineteenth-century American brothels, the Mormon utopia of Prophet City, and an experimental hospital for consumptives… Give to insatiable fans of historical fiction..." —Booklist
"It's quite a trick, lassoing the literary bounty of historical fiction, the sheer oddness of what people did and the words they used, and lashing it tight to a clever, irreverent, a la page voice. Susann Cokal has pulled that off in her second novel, Breath and Bones. Her language is fresh. It's bawdy. It's laugh-out-loud funny in parts. And if it's historically astute, do we care? This is fiction for fun." —The Durango Herald
"Another offbeat adventure from Cokal (Mirabilis, 2001), who sends a consumptive but dauntless Danish teenager across 1880s America in search of her lover…fun—in a kinky sort of way. An intriguing sophomore effort from a writer who definitely has her own unique voice." —Kirkus Reviews
"This steamy historical novel (Cokal's second, after Mirabilis) chronicles the adventures—sexual and otherwise—of its consumptive, red-haired heroine, Famke, from her childhood in a late 19th-century Copenhagen orphanage to her fate in the American Wild West. [A] …literary bodice-ripper…" —Publishers Weekly
"As a story, Breath and Bones is definitely unique. As wordsmith, Ms. Cokal is a standout. I literally devoured this book, enticed by her skill to keep reading from first page to last…Throughout, Ms. Cokal blends fascinating characters and locations, humor and history into a splendid tale of an amazing woman and her travels. And she accomplishes the telling of her story in grand style." —The Midwest Book Review
A panel discussion of historical fiction set in the Wild West in general and California in particular (I'm the lone chick in the group). Also some thoughts simply about What It Means to Write. From the Book Group Expo in San Jose, 2005.
I was lucky to have been featured on some stellar litblogs for Breath and Bones. Some have now vanished, but try to make a visit ...
Shaken & Stirred:
Breath and Bones blends Pre-Raphaelite painting, American brothels, Utahan polygamists, a bit of cross-dressing, a dynamite-wielding labor movement, one California millionaire, and the invention of electrical stimulation (as treatment for consumption) into a romp across the American Wild West.
—Hygeia Springs, or Hygiene: 26.2 miles from the western (narrow gauge) rail terminus at Harmsway, with tracks presently being extended to the village itself. It is halfway up the mountain and so situated as to promote respiratory hygiene and health, with picturesque scenery on every side. The hospital building was erected at a cost of $80,000 and is not equaled by any other such institution in the West; thus for the last half-decade it has rivaled the nearby gold mines in its contributions to the region’s prosperity. The visitor may enjoy the naturally carbonated spring waters or tour the small but none the less distinguished gallery of paintings, privately owned and free to the public on the first Monday of each month. Of several good hotels, the Celestial is the best.
—Frederick E. Shearer, The Pacific Tourist, revised edition, 1892
The cemetery seemed to roll on for miles, its plinths and statues struggling through the folds of a hillside thinly dusted white. A strange situation for a house of art, the widow thought; but these graves, like the mine tailings on the mountain below or the crenellated fortress above, were nothing to her.
Two men met her at the fortress door. One was tall and raw and bony, with a disturbing stripe of pink scalp showing, as if he had been attacked by savages. His hands, also, were knotted with scar tissue, white ridges and mountains straining against the bones beneath. The other man, just slightly shorter, wore silken gloves, as if to say his own hands would do no more work on this earth; from his dark spectacles and blank expression, she surmised that he was blind. She did not ask their names, and they did not need to ask hers. She already knew the tall man, knew he was of her native country. She could speak as she wished, and he would translate.
“We are honored.” The blind man spoke English, but quite clearly. “Thank you for traveling all this way.”
“It was my husband’s wish.” She saw no need to pretend she was glad of it—though she was very glad finally to be unburdening herself of the crate and its contents. “Your drivers are opening the box now.”
The taller man translated for the blind one, then turned back to her.
“Would you like to see where it will hang?” he asked, and she supposed she would.
There were four rooms to the gallery, each one feebly seeping light through narrow windows. The first two were crowded, with pictures hung nearly floor to ceiling and some of the frames knocking against each other.
The blind man served as guide. He remembered the placement of each picture and identified for her: “Muses by Holman Hunt . . . Mother and Child . . . Rossetti . . . the old Christiansborg Castle, painted by the Dane Christen Købke.” He mispronounced that name, but she didn’t bother to correct him.
In the third room, the style of the pictures changed; even the untrained visitor could see they were the work of a single artist, and one who preferred to paint the same subject several times: women with spears, women with masks, women with fishes’ tails. Some of the canvases had been patchworked, cut apart and resewn, with layers of paint crumbling off into colored dust at the seams. Every one of them featured a woman with flaming red hair and sharp, pale features—a woman the widow would rather not see here.
The blind man perhaps felt the same way, for he chose not to dwell on these pictures. “Figures from mythology,” he said merely, and he unlocked the door to the fourth room, the one few visitors ever saw. The thin windows there were covered in velvet, making the room a dark cave.
The widow hesitated. She had a mild dislike of the dark.
“This will be your painting’s home,” the tall man said, as the blind one felt his way inside.
“It is not my painting,” she replied. “My husband left it to your gallery in his will.”
The tall man turned the screw for the gaslight. “And this is not my gallery. The owner lives up the mountain.”
Light from the glass globes flared over the room and then subsided. Still the widow’s eyes were dazzled. At first she saw only empty walls, and then something that made her raise the black handkerchief to her lips.
“Yes,” said her countryman. “It is.”
It was a large cylinder with thick, slightly green glass walls. The ends of the cylinder were of glass, too, and the craftsmanship was so fine that the joinings were scarcely visible. But it was what the cylinder held inside that constituted the great wonder: the body of a woman, floating in a clear liquid, with a blue velvet gown and hair such a brilliant red that at first glance it appeared unnatural.
Again the blind man guessed the widow’s thoughts. “She is real,” he said. “True flesh, preserved in alcohol and other fluids. Go on, step closer and look.”
The spectacle presented an irresistible lure; against a good part of her own will, the widow moved nearer. The corpse’s hair and dress rippled faintly with the vibrations of her footsteps, while the scent of alcohol burned her nostrils. Up close, the body looked less alive; the flesh was a dead, arsenic white, and it too seemed to ripple. The face had lost some of its shape, as if the bones had turned to rubber; and most grotesque of all, the eyes were missing.
“Melted,” the tall man whispered in their native tongue, when he saw where she was looking, “eaten away in the alcohol. But he”—gesturing toward the other man— “he doesn’t know.”
The blind man clearly did not understand. “Is she not beautiful?” he asked, with his face turned toward the coffin as if in all the world he could see this one thing. He touched the top of the glass curve with the gloved hand, and the widow had to swallow hard. She felt very hot in her silks.
“Too beautiful for the grave,” the blind man went on, answering his own question. “Few scientists know this method of preservation; I learned it expressly for her. She was the last sight I saw before losing that faculty completely.”
If she breathed, she would surely be ill. “But—”
“It was not a slow death, though it took us weeks to repair.” The blind man spoke as if the death itself were of no importance. “If you look closely, you might see little wounds in her face and arms . . .”
She refused to look any closer. She heard the workmen approaching and felt a wave of relief that her duty here would soon be done. They came in stepping carefully, holding the immense canvas-wrapped picture removed from its crate.
The tall man gestured. “Against that wall.”
“And be gentle,” added the blind one.
The workmen propped it up, that artistic behemoth that had vexed her since the day her husband had bought it and proved that although he was willing to raise her to the state of matrimony, he could not shake off the hold of past fascination.
Travel had loosened the canvas wrapping until it now billowed like a sail. The workmen pulled it away to reveal the flat image of a woman, skin startlingly white, hair brilliantly red: an echo of the figure in the tube. Again the widow shuddered, and she looked away for what she thought would be the last time.
But what she saw was hardly more reassuring. The motion of so many feet and limbs [FWR4] had carried over into the cylinder, and the corpse inside was moving: the arms thrashing bonelessly, the hair storming around the eyeless face, and the lips parting as if to tell a story.
She casts her best, she flings herself.
How often flings for nought, and yokes
Her heart to an icicle or whim ...
—Coventry Patmore, The Angel in the House
This was our first glimpse of Denmark. Very flat it looked,—just out of water, and no more ...
—Helen Hunt Jackson, Glimpses of Three Coasts
“Don’t move,” he said.
So Famke stifled her cough. She held her breath and tried to stay very, very still while the two frog-green eyes took her in. Up, down, and up again, a pencil tapped out her measure on the page, with a faint sound of scratching as he made refinements here or there.
Famke also had to repress the shivers, for it was cold in the room. She was wearing only the thinnest of summer chemises and was aware that Albert could see everything beneath, right down to the triangle of red below her belly, which was as bright as the hair on her head. She felt exposed, proud and nervous in the way of a girl showing herself naked to a lover for the first time. But this was not the first time, and her companion was not pleased.
“Darling, do try to look alive,” he murmured. “And graceful—or do you think nymphs are often hired for work on farms? It is more than positioning the bones, it’s in the spirit, in the hands . . . like this”—he demonstrated— “see, darling, the energy and beauty flowing from my fingertips? You are a good mimic; now mimic me.”
Famke tried to follow these latest instructions without, as he had previously enjoined, actually moving. She knew Albert didn’t mean what he’d said, or not the unkind part of it; he always got grumpy just after starting work. In any event, he had found her on a farm, and she agreed that he had been a rescuer of sorts. So her arms remained in the air, fingers splayed in the sorcerous pose she’d kept this past hour, as the slow winter light changed from blue to gray and the bells of Our Savior’s Church let the housewives know it was safe to step out to the shops.
Or perhaps she couldn’t help moving just a little. Her arms ached and her lungs tickled, and she had to breathe, after all. All morning she’d been posing with hardly a word or a pause. A little sound broke from her nose.
“The devil!” Albert swore. In a better mood, he might have tossed in another “darling,” but for now he knocked his sketchpad to the floor and strode off to stare moodily out the window.
At last Famke did let herself cough. She coughed a good, long time, to get all the tickles and scratches out of her lungs. When she was done she climbed down from the little platform and joined him at the window.
“Albert,” she said, laying a tentative hand on his arm. She added, in English, “Sweetheart . . .”
He continued to sulk, so she looked out the window, too, and chewed a lip in thought. It was a pristine November day, sunlight dazzling on a full, thick blanket of snow that even the horses hadn’t gone tisse in yet. Chimney smoke had only just begun to soot the rooftops, the trains were blocked by the snow on the rails, and in the narrow harbor chunks of ice were bumping against each other, like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle trying gently for a better fit. A draft leaked in through the warped panes and Famke, shivering, pressed herself against Albert’s back.
She was somewhat pleased to find he was staring toward the ruin of the royal palace, now a white mound to the south. It was a mound they both knew well; one night a month or so ago, just after the fire that started in a garderobe had finally quenched itself in the harbor, the two of them had sneaked past the sentries and poked around the rubble for souvenirs. Famke had held a shuttered lantern while Albert dug out a nearly perfect silver tinderbox still filled with royal matches, something that he with his fondness for cheroots could put to far better use than she; and yet he presented it to her with a gallant flourish. It sat now on the icy mantel, polished to such a gloss that the three ladies carved on the top, whom Albert called the Graces, seemed to move with the light.
Albert spoke. “That ruin”—he pulled her up beside him and pointed, as if she couldn’t see it for herself— “that was the first thing I saw when I woke this morning.”
“Our first snowfalling,” Famke agreed, but he didn’t seem to hear.
“I said to myself, ‘That is my inspiration. That is what’s been lacking in the work I came here to do . . .’”
“Your entryness,” she elaborated, “to your Brothergood.”
“Brotherhood.” He adjusted the angle of her head, even though she wasn’t posing now. “And yes, you are right. You,” he said, looking at and yet beyond her, “will be Nimue, creating the ice cave in which you will make the noble Merlin a prisoner for time and all eternity. The enchantress baiting her trap. Eyes weaving spells—making this icy cell a crystal semblance of paradise . . .”
She strained to look especially magical. Albert studied her critically and said, “Your figure is right, your eyes and your face. Your hair. And yet something is missing.”
Famke dropped her last attempt at a pose. She hardly understood when Albert talked in this voice, with this passion and despair; he’d only just begun to teach her his language, and she was barely seventeen, hardly a scholar. She clutched her elbows and said, “Doesn’t magic people feel cold?”
“Cold,” Albert whispered. He was prone to repeating the last word that had stuck in his mind, as if there he’d find the revelation that would make him the most celebrated of the painterly Brotherhood to which he aspired. “A paradise. Cold—ice!” And, perhaps giving up on some loftier endeavor, he kissed her.
Who would imagine paradise to be cold? Famke thought as Albert’s lips oystered away at hers. To her the cold meant chillblains, a red nose, and extra pain in the lungs. Everyone had trouble keeping warm in a winter like this of 1884, and Albert for some reason insisted on living in a garret with a fireplace that would not draw. She didn’t even have a full set of underwear on. But when she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him deep, she felt his warmth through the layers of his coat and waistcoat and shirt and undershirt, and sudden bright heat sprang into her cheeks, sweat to her brow. She broke into a fever so intense she might have swooned if she hadn’t been caught by another fierce bout of coughing.
Albert released Famke and backed away, to look thoughtfully from her to the sketchpad. He was not particularly bothered by coughs, having come of age in one of England’s coal towns where everybody hacked and suffered night sweats. He watched Famke with those green eyes, too big for their sockets but somehow always squinting, as she doubled over and coughed and coughed, till her face turned a bright beety red—she could feel it—and she developed an urgent need to visit the loo.
As she shuddered, Albert did nothing; but she expected no more. Only this watching, which was his work in life, just as posing for and waiting upon him and being watched had become hers. When she felt the coughing was done, she tried to smile apologetically with her swollen lips. At that, he reached into his sleeve and drew out a handkerchief.
When Famke took it and looked down, she saw another triangle marking her chemise—glistening, just beginning to soak into the delicate batiste, a fan of red droplets radiating out from the vee of her legs. It stretched nearly to the hem and her bare feet. If she could have turned any redder, her embarrassment and shame would have done it: The cough had brought a mist of blood from her lungs, and it had ruined her nymph’s costume. She should get the chemise into cold water right now—but no, Albert had grabbed both her hands and was leading her back to the platform.
“That’s it,” he said excitedly. “That is it! Nimue was a virgin . . . .” He pushed her hastily back in her former pose and added the pillows from their bed, arranging them at her feet. “Ice blocks,” he murmured, and then: “She was a virgin, and she gave Merlin her love, and when he failed to return it, she used his own magic to cast a fearsome spell upon him.” He sounded to Famke like one of the priests who had visited the orphanage; their voices were full of poetry, but she had never been able to understand them, even in Danish.
Albert set Famke’s shoulders and chin. “And her maiden’s blood streaked the ice like flames.” He looked at her pointedly, as if she could be expected to spray blood over the pillows on command. When that failed to happen, he continued thoughtfully, “Her blood wove a snare of blood andwithin the ice . . . Of course I cannot truly show that blood or where it came from, but I can suggest, in the shadows just here, in the shadows of the skirt . . .”
“I have to tisse,” Famke bleated, but Albert stood on tiptoes to drop a little kiss at the corner of her eye. She held the pose.
Back at the easel, he dusted off the sketchpad with his hands. He took a long squinting look at Famke, then found half a charcoal pencil on the floor and began to draw. There was silence, except for the scratching of his pencil and the faint curses of the sailors in the harbor below.
Famke liked when Albert looked at her, even though now, as he plotted her against the stub of pencil or a longer brush, she knew he wasn’t really seeing her at all: He was seeing his idea of this Nimue, a virginal nymph who lived in his mind but not in his bed. It was the same way as he saw the blood on Famke’s chemise not as the sign of sickness but as a signal of beauty, something he called a symbol, unrelated to the coughs that plagued her.
Someone was coughing in the stairwell right now. A sailor, Famke guessed from the loud sound of it. She thought that the sailors who lived in Fru Strand’s rooming-house liked to look at her, too; but they looked differently. They saw the same things Albert saw, the same figure and eyes and hair, but even at her age she knew it didn’t mean to them what it did to him. They were only boys, at the very beginning of their years at sea, renting a room for a week or two between voyages in much the same way as they rented girls for a night.
“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.
For all their dissatisfactions, each of Albert’s works was dense with that sort of detail and keen observation, labored over inch by inch. It was that labor that made their eventual destruction so heartbreaking to Famke. She once suggested that he sketch a rough outline first, to get an impression of the scene, but he reacted with horror: “Impressions are dangerous to a true artist,” he said. “You speak like a Frenchwoman—you know, over there a man fills five or six canvases a day with impressions. The Brotherhood know that only in precise details is there truth. It is the difference between a tramp and a good workman—impressions are a passing pleasure; patience and industry make art.”
And yet, thought Famke, Albert was remarkably impatient. Just now he was wearing that gray heel of bread down to his fingers, and crumbs were flying everywhere. The page before him was a smear of pale blue. It was time for her to do or say something, lest he succumb to self-criticism and despair.
She covered the chamberpot and put it back in its place. Still naked, thinking how best to distract him, she climbed into bed and buried herself up to the eyelids in blankets, then looked to the window. The sunlight was already waning, but it showed the roofs had grown dirty, the day’s warmth turning the castle ruins from a palace of snow back into mere rubble.
“Do you think Christiansborg burns to a purpose?” she asked. “Do you think it is destroyed because it is not perfect?”
Albert glanced out the window, too, and what he saw there seemed to calm him. “No.” He picked up his brush again. “The Danes do not behave that way. Not since the Vikings, at any rate.”
Famke thought that despite all his claims to record the details of real things as he saw them, Albert ignored the imperfect world-as-it-was, the one where even saints and goddesses were subject to violence and had much in common with the sailors and Ludere in the street. Up here, in the room Albert so loved (though Famke suspected he could afford one much nicer), he blinked and scratched his way toward a better world in which the ice was clean and whole, the women powerful despite their vulnerability.
The sheets now felt as warm and soft as bathwater; Famke slid down them like a happy eel and tried to imagine a world she might create if invited to do so. She had only the dreamiest sense of what it might be: warm, yes, but with jigsaw-puzzle blocks of ice and flowers and pickled herring and definitely Albert. The thick smell of linseed oil and the bite of turpentine, rainbows of paint under nails and across unexpected stretches of skin. There would be no farmwork, no housework, no church services; only art. She would never cough. Instead she would stand in the middle of this world, or lie in it, perpetually still, with her clothes off and her eyes lost in Albert’s.
It would be this life.
“New pots for old!” sang a tinker passing down the street below.
Famke looked up and suddenly the light was gone; even the keenest eye couldn’t stretch it any further. Albert sighed and put brush and palette down on the rough board table, where Famke would clean them later. Wiping his hands on what he must have thought was a rag—a camisole she’d left to dry over the back of a chair—he looked from the easel to the bed, from pencil drawing to paint sketch to the real, living girl watching him and trying not to cough.
“I think it is going to be . . . .” He paused, searching for the right word: “beautiful.”
It was an ordinary word after all, but nonetheless exotic to her, for he said it in English. Famke felt a rush of hot feeling—not the ordinary fever of her disease but a new kind that Albert had passed on to her, a kind that felt hotter and stronger each time it came over her. She threw the covers off and held out her arms to him, unconsciously splaying her hands in much the same way as Nimue did.
He came toward her, repeating, “Beautiful . . .”
See the book on Amazon.com.