Dwarfed, a novel excerpt by Jessica Schira

Young adult fiction, novel excerpt
Title: Dwarfed
Author: Jessica Schira
Twitter: @ridingnwriting
Word count: N/A

We had created a simple plan. My parents would get me settled into life with Maggie, Etna, and Maggie’s brother, Ray Bob. The plan was good but things didn’t go the way they were supposed to. Instead having several hours, my parents barely had enough time to transfer my belongings to the porch and give me a quick hug and kiss before they jumped back into the car and high tailed it to the airport.

The dust they’d kicked up still hung in a dense cloud above the long driveway when Etna got her first glance of Adelaide. Her face got all red and blotchy, and she exploded. The eruption of her temper was every bit as impressive as the volcano she’d been named after. She ranted on and on about germs, bacteria, disease, and general filth. I tried arguing, but my words fell on deaf ears, and Etna exiled Adelaide to an outdoor pen with the farm’s flock of Pekin ducks.

I’ll never admit this to Etna, but as soon as I got my first glimpse of the pen, I knew Adelaide would be happier living in the enclosure with the other ducks than she would be staying with me. Not only does the woven wire include a spacious coop and a colossal steel feeder, but it extends into the middle of an enormous pond, providing the flock with ample room to swim.

It’s duck Utopia.

I spot the ducks as soon as I crest the hill separating the duck pen and farm house. They’re floating on the pond, enjoying the water while soaking up the last of the late afternoon sunlight. The peaceful scene resembles a Monet painting.

Fingering the bits of cracked corn in my pocket, I let myself into the pen. Standing on the slight decline, I’m careful to keep my feet well away from the disgusting clumps of algae, feather, bits of straw, and duck droppings congealing where water and land collide. V’s ripple across the water’s surface as ducks swim away from me.

“Adelaide.” My voice startles me. It’s so loud. The sound of it rolling over the pond makes me feel small and insignificant, like I’m the only person in a huge, empty world.

I shake off the uncomfortable sensation, and call out again, gentling my voice. “Adelaide?”

Tiny bits of corn cling to my skin as I use my hand to shield my eyes from the glare of sunlight on water. I can’t make out any sign of my Cayuga Blue duck.

This doesn’t make any sense. Adelaide never ignores me.

A flash of movement catches my eye. I turn to watch a black feather cartwheel into the gelatinous debris. Trepidation curls my toes and bile fills my throat as I back track the feather. Hundreds of black feathers litter the ground.

I can’t believe I didn’t see them sooner.

Adelaide never loses this many feathers, not even when she’s molting. Something had plucked the feathers from her body. I pick up a feather. Blood on the quill stains my skin as I twirl the feather, watching the colors shift from black to bottle green and back to black in the sunlight.

“Adelaide,” I whisper. A lump of fire crawls into my throat as I stare at the bloody and bent feathers scattered all over the duck pen.

Quack.

I stare at the shed. Forgotten, the feather turns several loop-de-loops and drifts towards my feet.
Possibilities swirl through my mind as I walk towards the shed. Whatever attacked Adelaide must have also gone after another duck, one that managed to survive the attack.

I peer into the coop. “Hello.” I have to squint in order to see into the shadowy corners. The place is a mess. Bits of hay, droppings, and white feathers litter the ground inside the duck shed. There’s no evidence of Adelaide ever being here.

Quack. The sound is growing weaker.

Standing still, I strain my ears, forcing myself to identify the exact location of the sound. The quaking seems to be coming from behind the structure.

The pen has been designed with the wire is flush touching the coop’s wall. I find it hard to believe a duck, or anything else, could fit between the two, but when I glance down and notice marks in the dirt, along and dark patches of drying blood.

I take a deep breath and use my shoulders and back to force the wire to bend, creating enough space for me to wedge my body between the fence and the wall, and edge my way towards the duck’s hiding place. The wire scrapes my back, tugging at my hair and snags my t-shirt. I curse as a bright flash of pain explodes on my left forearm when a bit of splintered wood bites into my skin. Swallowing the sob gathering in my chest I force grief aside and focus on the duck.

I nearly trod on the poor bird.

My heart stumbles.

The animal looks like it’s been to the depths of hell and back again. I never imagined anything looking this bad still being alive. The slow rise and fall of its ribs seems like a mirage.

Nearly all of the duck’s plumage is gone, only a few bent and broken feathers remaining. The entire body is covered in scrapes, some have scabbed over, but the deeper looking cuts are still bleeding, the blood pooling under the duck. One nasty gash cuts diagonally across the breast, the edges pulling away to expose muscle and fat. Blood flows from the wound dripping onto black webbed feet.
Adelaide’s feet.

“Goodness Adelaide. I feared you had-” A fresh wave tears sting my eyelids. I blink them back and force myself to inhale and exhale. The only way I will be able to help Adelaide will be if I can stay in control. “Sweeting, I’m so grateful you’re alive.” Despite my determination to stay calm my voice shakes and cracks.

I brush my fingertips against one of the few unmarred sections of Adelaide’s skin, seeking to comfort. Adelaide thrashes, whipping herself from side to side. Her black feet stomp the soil creating mini-dust clouds which envelope her. She grinds dirt into her open wounds and . flaps her nearly featherless wings. Scabs split open, causing the blood to flow in rivulets along her battered body until it drips from her flesh to stain the earth.

I grab Adelaide. Her beak opens in a silent scream as she jerks, and tries to tear herself free of my hold. She doesn’t stop until I hug her to my chest. Blood trickles down my hands and arms as I as slowly work my way out along the shed’s wall.

It takes all of my self-control to double check that I’ve latched the gate properly before I spin around, and race across the field. I don’t have a plan besides getting Adelaide somewhere safe and tending to her wounds.

I kick off my flip-flops, and sprint barefoot up the hill separating me from the farmhouse.

I hate running. I try to avoid the activity whenever possible. The faster I try to run, the more top heavy I seem to become. It’s impossible to shake the sensation that at any moment I’ll trip and tumble head over arse. For Adelaide I’m willing to make an exception this one time. Her blood trickling down my arm urges me to push for more speed.

I charge up the gradient, moving so swiftly I scarcely notice the way my surroundings had become little more than a blur of color.

My brain fails to register the human body moving around the corner of the weather beaten shed I’m racing past. One second I’m running. The next I slam into something with so much force I bounce backwards. My backside hits the ground with a teeth loosening thump. Lightning bolts of pain jolt the length of my spine.

“Marry!” The Elizabethan curse bursts from my mouth as a dense cloud of dust blooms around me.

Adelaide utters a feeble, miserable quack which sounds suspiciously like a duck curse. “Honeyfuggle!” I groan.

I glare up at the boy.

“Maladroit!” I spit out the curse and touch my chin, massaging the spot his belt buckle scrapped. “Thou should’st pay attention to where thou walks, unless it prithee thou to knock maidens onto their arses!” I hurl the words up at him, before turning my attention to Adelaide. There’s no sign of any additional injuries.
I blow out a relieved breath. Good manners force me to continue speaking, even though the only think I really want to do is run away from here and take care of Adelaide.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have shrieked like a common wench.” I say, resisting the impulse to point out that at least some of the blame for our collision should lay on his shoulders. “I should have agnized the fates would lay obstacles in my path. Thou art blameless. I pray your forgiveness.” I barely notice the fact that I’ve switched from contemporary English, to the Shakespearean version I use at the Renaissance Faire.

The boy floats a brow. “What’d you say?”

Great, the world’s full of intellectuals yet I manage to collide with a simpleton. “I apologized for yelling at you.”

“Yeah, I got that part.” Sunlight glints off his tousled blond hair as he tilts his head to the side and studies me. “I want to know about the first thing you said,” he says. The calm cadence of his words, his low tone reminds me of the way Pedro, the Faire’s, speaks while working his birds. Pedro’s voice never caused my stomach to flutter or my palms to sweat.
I don’t like the sensation.

“Clueless knave,” I mutter under my breath.

He crosses his arms over his chest and stares down at me, an amused smile hovering at the corners of his mouth.

I force my own mouth to curve into my sweetest smile and gaze up at him through down swept lashes. “I was childish.” I lace my voice with pseudo-sweetness. I want him to leave me alone so I can take care of my pet. “I apologize.” Lying will get me out of this situation faster than honesty will.

“What’s that mean?”

“It’s unimportant.”

“I guess I should learn the definition. I’ve got the SAT’s coming up soon and maladroit might be in the vocab section. Also, it sounds kind of cool, like some kind of robot which would be awesome.”

It’s all I can do to prevent myself from rolling my eyes and accusing him of being a commoner. “Rest assured a maladroit is not a robot.”

I brace my free hand on the grass. The movement presses Adelaide to my rib cage. With an irritated quack and flapping of her featherless wings she protests the increased pressure. “Shh, my cockyolly bird,” I coo.

“I’ve never heard of a Cockyolly bird before.” His conversational tone grates on my nerves. “But the bird you’re holding right,” he nods at Adelaide, “isn’t one. It’s a duck.”

Stay calm, my inner voice chimes, losing your temper won’t do anyone any good. “Aye, I’m aware she’s a duck. Cockyolly is a term of endearment. It means dear little bird.”

“Okay.” He tucks his fingers into his jean pockets and rocks back on his heels. “What’s a maladroit?”

“You should find a dictionary and learn the meaning on your own.” My headache, which had virtually disappeared, nudges my skull. “You do understand how to use one of those, do you not?”

Something in my snarky tone causes a bright smile to spread across his wide face. “Harsh,” he says in the same, irritating, amicable tone. He bends and wraps his long, strong fingers around my wrist and helps me stand up.

“I’m Grace Sullivan.”

“You’re Grace?” His voice climbs an octave. “You’re Ray Bob’s niece? Grace? That Grace? Wow! When you were running, I thought maybe someone stopped over to talk to Ray Bob about something and you were one of their kids or grandkids.”

“Do I speak like a little kid?”

He acts like he doesn’t hear my words. “You, you’re, well, um, you’re not what I expected.”

I cross my arms and float a brow, waiting for him to continue. It’s a short wait.

“You’re a midget.”

One word, that’s all it takes, and the tiny spark of fury smoldering inside me morphs into a full-fledged inferno. “Do I appear to be a blood sucking fly?”

“Huh?”

“You stupid cutpurse. Does thou believe I resemble a tiny fly?” Each word hangs on the air for a second before being pushed aside by the next.

“Um, no. At least I don’t think so.” He glances over his shoulder. “I need a translator.”

“So, why dost thou persist in calling me a midget?”

The guy’s perplexed expression causes a twinge of satisfaction to course through me, cooling the angry blaze. I can’t recall a single time when getting the upper hand was more satisfying.

“I don’t know what I said to make you mad, but yelling at me isn’t helping, I don’t understand half of what you’re saying. I’m not even sure you’re using English.”

“I’m PO’ed because you called me a midget.”

The guy waves his hand in a gesture designed to encompass my height. “But you are a midget.”

“A midget is a small fly.” Technically the insect is a midge fly, but I don’t see any reason to make that distinction. “I’m just as much a human as you.” I let my gaze rove up and down his body, surveying his appearance. “Forsooth,” I say in my driest British accent, “even a bit more so.” It isn’t my nature to be peevish and arrogant, but playing the role of someone who is, sends a bold of pleasure zinging through me.

“I know you’re human, but you’re…”

I purse my lips together and squint up at him. “Person,” I offer, cutting him off before he can makes another offensive comment. “Individual, girl, teenager.”

He removes his battered Allis Chalmers ball cap, and shoves it into his back pocket, before running his fingers through his thick, dark blond hair.

My brain’s rational side kicks in, checking my temper. I’m tempted to hand my head. For the first time in my life, I wished I was a traditional Catholic who believed in demons, which I could blame for my irrational behavior.

I let go of some of my anger. He doesn’t deserve it.

“If thou must label me, thou should restrict oneself to using dwarf, or little person. Midget’s an old word that used to be used to describe proportional dwarfs like Tom Thumb, it’s no longer fashionable or politically correct. Munchkin isn’t any better.” I wonder why this is so important to me all of a sudden. I’ve never been the type of person who crusades for causes, so why am I starting one now?

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6 thoughts on “Dwarfed, a novel excerpt by Jessica Schira

  1. The initial mystery is here: who plucked the bird and why? Fox? Other predator? I liked how fast the opening of the story went until the Grace collided with the boy. As she is is still holding a bleeding duck, it is hard to accept that she would stop for a conversation, as fierce and mighty as she is, which I like immensely. That she is a dwarf is really secondary except for the boy’s reaction to her, which leans towards her snootiness and not her size. I am intrigued 🙂

  2. I was hoping for a hint for the reason why the novel is titled DWARFED. You not only delivered it in the opening, but you gave superb reason to believe this is going to boil into a damn good story. While you gave quite a bit of information in this opening, you did so without dumping it onto the reader. I learned she’s involved with Renaissance faires, probably in some cast/staff position working with fowl. Her being a dwarf richly compounds the visual image I have of her tending a flock and speaking Elizabethan English. I trust this is why she’s somewhat dumped on the farm while her parents high tail it back to the airport.

    Marianne mentioned above the only misstep I see in this excerpt. I noted while reading, “If she’s so concerned about her injured duck, why is she having this ping-pong banter with the boy?” The banter is cute, it establishes much of why she’s on the farm, but somewhere early in this dialog, the character must indicate to the boy the dire injury of the bird. Don’t cut the dialog–it’s good–but direct it toward the urgency Grace feels in getting help for her bird. Without doing so, the immediacy of the scene is lost to teenage flirtation.

    I found a few more things that need attention:

    It’s duck Utopia.

    I spot the ducks as soon as I crest the hill separating the duck pen and farm house. They’re floating on the pond, enjoying the water while…

    I think you need a stronger transition between these two sentences. Perhaps there was a space break in the original that got lost when it was posted here–that would work. What I’d really like to see is an indication of time passing and/or a short rumination of why Grace has a duck as a pet.

    The pen has been designed with the wire *is flush* touching the coop’s wall

    but when I glance down and notice marks in the dirt, *along and dark* patches of drying blood.

    even though the only think(g) I really want to do is run away from here and take care of Adelaide.

    I barely notice the fact that I’ve switched from contemporary English, to the Shakespearean version I use at the Renaissance Faire.

    I think this could go just a bit higher in this section of dialog. Not right at the front, but a few lines earlier.

    Pedro, *the Faire’s*, speaks while working his birds |> The Faire’s what?

  3. Smoothing out the transitions, as Carolyn suggested, would help the story flow better. I might also have liked to seen how Grace reacted to, in effect, being abandoned by her parents. Even if it was planned and agreed to, their hasty departure must have felt symbolic. I also would have liked to know a little about why Grace has Adelaide and is so attached to her.

    Etna seems a bit of a sketch. It seems unlikely she would not have been told about the duck beforehand and been a little calmer in dealing with the situation. The lack of description of any of the rest of the family, their welcome or not-welcome, also bothered me.

    At the point where Grace is going to visit Adelaide, I am wondering how she has been settling in, what routine is she establishing?

    It feels to me as though everything has been somewhat rushed in wanting to get to the Love Interest. I feel the story would benefit from more lead-up to that moment, dealing with Grace’s life, this major change, and how she is adjusting or not. We need more of an opportunity to identify with her. Maybe there would be an opportunity for us to see her interact with someone else about her dwarfism – maybe related to the reason she’s here? – that helps us to see just why she will eventually react the way she does to the young man. That way, we’ll know she’s going to go off on him when she likely doesn’t need to, and that she’s probably made a happy-ending kind of mistake that we can look forward to seeing resolved.

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