Amanda's Circus

Read from my novel: A Cage of Rooks

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You might say ‘A Cage of Rooks’ is a magical realism novel but I don’t see it like that, not exactly. It’s a retelling of one of my favourite fairy stories ‘Rapunzel’. Unless you know that already, on reading the novel, I think it’s very unlikely that you would realise. But elements of the original are evident and it’s an interesting place to start writing because ‘Rapunzel’ has so many unusual elements that set it apart from most fairy tales. My story doesn’t follow the plot exactly but many of the key characteristics are there. ‘Rapunzel’ is one of the few stories in which the main female protagonist rescues her lover. Yes, she is originally confined to the tower and lets down her hair so that her lover might rescue her, but later, when he’s blinded and wanders the world, it is Rapunzel that searches for him. A feminist story, perhaps. Unusual, don’t you think, in a fairy tale? But my novel is realist in many ways, it is the story of Carrie, a 21st century girl, alone and with decisions to make. She’s privileged perhaps but also painfully neglected.phaedra-cabanel-icon

 

The magical realism element in ‘A Cage of Rooks’ does not come from ‘Rapunzel’. The portraits and murals in Carrie’s house, Camelstone, have always come to life for Carrie and feature as main characters in the novel; most notably, the Duchess de Berry and Phoenix Halcro. The glamorous story of real life Duchess de Berry, Princess Caroline of Naples and Sicily, is woven into the novel and we find details of her adventures in nineteenth century France at the Élysée Palace in Paris, in prison at Blaye and in her palace in Venice. She also stayed at Lulworth Castle, Dorset where she was the first person to excavate one of the burial mounds at Five Marys, Chaldon Herring. ‘A Cage of Rooks’ is set in this area of Dorset. The Duchess de Berry is a vibrant and free-thinking character who acts on impulse, loves the glamorous world but is not afraid to get filthy, start rebellions and fight for her beliefs and her loves. She is Carrie’s mentor and is unafraid to pester Carrie when life leads her into trouble. Berry,_Marie-Caroline_duchesse_de small

Phoenix Halcro, on the other hand, is an imaginary warrior angel clad in armour, part of the Camelstone murals. She is bad-tempered, fearsome on the outside, vulnerable within but never afraid to voice an opinion. She argues with the Duchess de Berry, always voicing an opposing view and is fiercely loyal to Carrie. The Duchesse de Berry and Phoenix Halcro form a sort of Greek Chorus, commenting on Carrie’s actions and decisions.fallen-angel small

In brief, Carrie is tied to her crumbling 21st century English manor house, Camelstone, tending the cage of rooks inherited from her superstitious ancestors. When the composer, Didier, arrives in town they become passionately obsessed with each other and Carrie’s life falls apart until she meets John, a gardener.victoria-park-snowy-day small

Here’s the beginning:

A Cage of Rooks

Amanda Oosthuizen

Chapter 1

The rooks are lined against the bars of the cage, not in rows, rooks don’t behave like that, but pecking the ground at the perimeter.  I watch for a minute. Thunder rolls around the countryside. The pines sway. The woodland darkens. The rooks continue to peck, tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap, a shared rhythm but each rook working in counterpoint to the rest.

The aviary was once a magnificent structure with a glass bell dome, a lead roof encased in intricate ironwork painted in gold like the flourishes of a regal signature and adjoining each side of the central dome is a semicircle of smaller domed cages all interconnected like a daisy chain. But now the glass is gone, laurel has grown inside the aviary winding its branches through the bars, the lead has been stolen and all that’s left of its former grandeur are the rusting fleur de lys on the iron struts, the inner house in which the rooks nest and the fragile skeletons of the domes now encased in chicken wire.

A slate grey cloud has gathered low overhead. I turn the key in the padlock and open the door. A scatter of rain makes the dust bounce. They ignore me, even as I step towards them. Maybe they consider me to be one of the clan or maybe, as their jailor, they despise me.

I push my ankles between two rooks, nudging them aside to get to the trough. A beak catches on the buckle of my boot-strap. The bird shakes, flaps its wings but the beak remains trapped. I push the wings away, stroke its head and gently tug the beak. As I release it, the rook pecks my middle finger just below the nail.

I tip grain into the trough and pour water into the bowls. I count the twelve rooks as I do every day and, sucking my finger, I lock up and head towards the Lodge.

Ahead, the gates to Camelstone Park are open, beyond them is the lane and behind me the drive disappears between the pines into darkness. Daylight is nearly gone but I can see a man standing between the trees, his coat buttoned up against the wind. I tighten my grip on the plastic bag containing the rooks’ grain.

I’m used to seeing Lazlo indoors; hair slicked to his scalp like black plastic, shirt like new paper, head buried in lists of figures but here, despite his flapping coat and his wild hair, he’s not out of place. It’s as if nature is on his side and I thought she was on mine and on my home ground, that’s not fair.

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He’s staring at the Lodge.  I dip my chin, fix my stare on the leaves swirling across the drive and stride towards the Lodge, ignoring him. I don’t run. I won’t give him the satisfaction of running but I grasp the mobile in my pocket. He moves fast. After a few steps, the leaves in my path are trampled by a pair of black shoes.

“What do you want?” I push my hair nervously behind my ears and wish I hadn’t.

“Carrie, it’s good to see you. I was hoping to bump into you.” He speaks slowly with a trace of a Balkan drawl.

“Please.” I roll my eyes and walk past him

“I’ll come straight to the point. I want to make you an offer.” He pushes in front again, blocking my way.

“I’m not interested.” I try to pass him. “I want to go home.”

“And I want your land. Everyone has his price.” He steps towards me. I stand my ground even though he’s breathing into my face.

“I’m not selling.”

“We’ll see.”

“Don’t waste your breath. And threats aren’t going to work.”

He opens his palms and laughs “Threats? Who’s threatening? Don’t get me wrong, Carrie. I like you. I admire your attempt to keep Camelstone but the place is decrepit.” He spreads the syllables like he’s chewing the word. “You need the money.”

“I’ll manage.”

“You’re clinging to the past, and that’s,” he laughs silently and stretches out a hand as if he’s going to stroke my cheek, “so sweet.”

I run the thirty metres to the Lodge. I know he won’t follow. Lazlo wouldn’t give chase. Once inside, I slam the door and climb the stairs to my bedroom. From the window I watch him finish the cigarette, flick the stub into the bracken and raise his head towards the window where I’m standing. It’s a gesture of strength, of Lazlo in control and Carrie the victim; a little show of power for my benefit.  It’s all a show. They must know they have nothing to gain by it but that’s what they’re about, both Lazlo and Didier love to put on a deception for anyone who cares to watch. And that’s where we’re different. But Lazlo’s the fixer, it’s Didier who’s at the root of it.

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