When I finished my first complete draft of The Twisted Circle: A Novel in 2016, the total word count of 92,602 had exceeded the desired 80,000 words that literary agents and publishers require for newbie authors. Subsequent revisions in tightening sentences and scenes did not achieve the magical number. In 2017, I took the undesirable and difficult step of removing a beloved minor character. This is known as ‘killing your darlings.’
Over the years, the phrase ‘to kill your darlings’ has been attributed to many famous writers: Oscar Wilde, G.K. Chesterton, and William Faulkner. But many literary scholars credit British writer and University of Cambridge Professor Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. In his 1916 book On the Art of Writing, he recommended writers to “murder your darlings.”
After spending over a month researching details of her background, I killed off Sylvia Flores since her character played a negligible role in my story’s main plot line. It hurt. This fictional character was my way of memorializing a Filipino woman whose tragic, premature death in Guyana’s northwest rainforest region has stayed with me after all these years.
The real-life woman was the wife of the Filipino resident doctor in charge of the Mabaruma Hospital at the time I lived and worked in the region. Owing to the isolation of the region and lack of proper medical facilities, Guyanese doctors then and now avoid the post like a death trap for their medical career.
In Chapter 10 of my first draft, I introduced my fictitious Filipino couple, Dr. Emilio Flores and his wife Nurse Sylvia Flores, from Manila, Philippines. They had arrived in Mabaruma in August 1978, a month after the arrival of Sister Frances, the American nun from Dayton, Ohio. As a foreigner herself, Frances develops an unexpected friendship with the Filipino couple, also in their thirties.
When I submitted my first draft to my developmental editor, she noted: “This friendship humanizes Frances…. She’s blind to her selfishness and paranoia, but with Sylvia, we get to see her as she would be without that selfishness.”
In September 1979, Frances learns that her friend is three months pregnant. After trying for several years to have a child, Sylvia and Emilio were elated. When Sylvia’s time comes for delivery in March 1980, Frances visits her friend in the hospital. The head nurse tells her that Nurse Flores’ baby boy is doing fine but that “the afterbirth ain’t come out yet.” On her return to the hospital the next morning, Frances receives the devastating news: Sylvia has died at 3:26 a.m. from severe hemorrhage.
The following inedited scene from Chapter 33 of my first draft, contains elements of magical realism. This was my way of putting to rest the spirit of a young woman who had lost her life to bring another into this world.
Frances awoke from a nightmare. Sylvia was lying in bedsheets soaked in blood next to her. Frances sat up. Her underwear was sticky wet; her menstrual period had come a week earlier than usual. Lifting the edge of the netting, she grabbed her flashlight sitting on her side table next to her clock radio. 3:33 the fluorescent face read. A quick check revealed that she had soiled her silk pajamas and bedsheet with menstrual blood.
She climbed out of bed to get a sanitary pad. Just as she was about to open her clothes closet, she heard the neighing of a horse coming from the direction of the presbytery on top of the Santa Cruz hill. The sound made no sense. She’d never seen a horse in these parts. Killing her flashlight, she moved to the open window. The quarter moon shed an eerie glow over the landscape. Clouds crept by overhead. The sound grew louder as it drew closer. Then, just below her window, the neighing died. Someone or something was watching her. Her body stiffened like a cadaver. Before she could utter a sound, the horse’s cries faded into the forest behind the school.
Was she still dreaming? Was she sleepwalking? She pinched herself. She didn’t believe in ghosts or Forest Spirits. Yet, she had heard the neighing of a horse. It must’ve been just the wind playing in the trees.
The convent was quiet. Gregoria and Rosario were not competing for the loudest snore. Opening her bedroom door, Frances headed for the bathroom. Someone fell; then groaned. Before entering, she tapped on Alma’s door. She found the old nun on her knees, clutching the chair.
She helped her up. “What happened, Alma?”
“I was going to the toilet; my knees give out,” the octogenarian nun told her. “Did you see the horseman?” Alma said, clinging to her as she half-carried her back to bed. “He had a lady with him. He said it’s not my time yet.”
“I’ll get your bedpan,” Frances said, moving to the table at the foot of the bed. “Who was the lady?”
As Alma often lived in an imaginary world, Frances found it easier to go along with the flow of her conversation.
“I didn’t see her face.”
She placed the bedpan under Alma’s buttocks. “How’d you know it was a woman?”
“I see one of her breasts.”
Frances waited while Alma urinated. The oldest member of their community was not only becoming more forgetful and weaker, she was also hallucinating.
“The sheet wrapping her body was soaked in blood,” Alma said, rolling to her side to allow Frances to retrieve the bedpan. Alma grasped her wrist. “Poor girl, she bled to death.”
Frances examined the wrinkled, leathery face. Alma must have overheard them talking about Sylvia.
Before she died, Frances’ grandmother had been the same way. She talked about dead people walking about her room, about seeing Frances’ mother. “They’ve come to take me to heaven,” her grandmother had told her.
So that Alma would not get entangled in the netting, Frances allowed it to hang down to the floor.
“The lady said not to worry about her,” Alma said. “She in good hands.”
Like a virgin carrying an offering to the Goddess of Fertility, Frances went to the toilet with the bedpan of urine. Menstrual blood trickled down her leg. She detested when her flow was so excessive.
The jungle was playing tricks with her mind. Before she began seeing things and hearing voices like Alma, she had to get away for a while.
Learn more about Forest Spirits in my article “Forest Spirits or Bush Spirits of Guyana’s Indigenous Peoples.”
The leader of our writers’ critique group loved this scene for its powerful imagery and symbolism. He had hoped that I could find another place for the scene. Such is the nature of our darlings: They come to life under specific circumstances. Frances’ encounter with the neighing Forest Spirit would have to take a different form.