Renovating The Young City


By the way, if anybody’s interested, Sealwife did not win or place in the Prairie Fire’s 2004 Writing Contest, not that this was a surprise. The thing is very competitive. Still, I have a fully written short fantasy story and I’m not sure where to send it. And right now I’m a little too busy to consider where to send it. I’ll tackle this problem later, I think, but if anybody has suggestions, I’m open to them.

As for Rosemary and Peter, with Rosemary and Time still waiting on word from the latest publisher, all of my attention (what I can spare of it) is on The Young City — specifically, focusing on the structural problems of chapters four through six.

Chapters one to three focus on getting Peter and Rosemary to Toronto in the year 1884. We have the action sequence of the drop into the underground river, running through the Sunday streets in their present day clothes, and finally finding someone who can give them food and shelter. It can still be tightened, but the set up has an energy to it that takes the reader up to the end of chapter three with little problem.

The later chapters are also rather strong, I think. Chapter seven leaps ahead two months after Peter and Rosemary make their unsuccessful attempt to return home through the time portal (now closed). They argue over their willingness to make a life here (Peter’s willing; Rosemary, who has far more to lose, isn’t), and then we give them a sign that the portal isn’t closed, it’s just moved. We run up against the forces of Aldous Birge, there’s kidnappings, a chance for Rosemary to return to the present without Peter, explosions and a denoument. I’m pretty happy with that.

(You can read some of the scenes from The Young City that I’m happy about here, here and here.)

Which leaves chapters four through six, which really drag.

The three chapters detail a two week period in 1884, as Peter and Rosemary gather the supplies they need (lanturns, etc) to go back into the sewers and try to climb back through the portal. They get to know Edmund and Faith better, and we see Edmund’s business problems increase and him coming under the influence of Aldous Birge as a result. We learn of Edmund’s aspirations to be an inventor, and Faith and Rosemary talk about women’s equality a lot. There’s a trip to the Canadian Industrial Exhibition. Not a lot happens, really.

It took me a while to realize that one of the most serious problems in this sequence is that there is no real sense of urgency in Peter and Rosemary’s drive to go home. Sure, they believe that time is moving slower on the present-day side of the portal, but realistically, they’re still likely not to want to spend any more time in Victorian Toronto than they have to.

It helps to preview the chapters to a critique group and have somebody ask you “but why don’t they try to go back into the sewers right away?”

To which the only answer can be: let me show you.

This scene takes place at the beginning of chapter four, after Peter and Rosemary have spent two days and one night in 1884 Toronto. It’s close to a first draft, but I think there’s something there…

Peter squatted on the embankment. The wooden hoarding stretched across the creek, black against the moonlight. The ground sloped away, leaving a hole big enough to walk through, stooped.

Rosemary stood beside him. “That’s not good for security.”

“I watched the place yesterday, when I was supposed to be out looking for work?” said Peter. “You remember the watchman who chased us out two days ago? He’s the foreman. I think he lives here. Probably a light sleeper.”

She leaned over, and wrinkled her nose. “The creek looks polluted.”

“Why do you think they’re burying it?”

She sighed. “Typical city thinking.”

“Whatever. You ready?”

“Wait a minute. Hold the candles.” She passed over a bundle that clattered softly in the silence. Then she pulled up her skirts. Peter almost fell down the embankment. “Rosemary, what—”

She pulled off her overdress and undid the fastens of her corset. “These things are worse than high heels.” She cast the corset aside and stood, dressed in chemise and bloomers. Peter stood with his mouth agape. She glared at him. “What? I’m wearing lots.”

He closed his mouth, then chuckled. “The guy who finds your clothes is going to have a heart attack.”

She smirked. “Parting gift.” Then she looked down at the discarded dress, and bit her lip. “I wish we could get that back to Faith somehow.”

“Here, Faith: thanks for lending me your dress. We don’t need it where we’re going.”

She took back the candles. “Let’s go.”

They half-crawled, half-slipped down the embankment into the creek bed. Rosemary grimaced as the mud sucked at her boots. Peter hushed her and she stuck her tongue out at him, but they walked on in silence into the construction yard, following the stream towards the open culvert.

The ferns along the creek bed disappeared and the exposed bank was cut back at a neat angle. Gravel rose, followed by a line of bricks on either side of the straightening stream. Soon they were walking between two low walls.

Rosemary looked up at the night sky, then clasped Peter’s shoulder and pushed him against the brick wall. He looked at her sharply, then followed her gaze up the embankment. The words froze in his throat, and he drew himself down.

A tall figure stood at the top of the embankment, silhouetted in moonlight.

It was the foreman; had to be. He really was a light sleeper. He raised a lantern and shone it across the ditch.

In the distance, a mournful howl rose up, echoing off the hoarding, and raising the hairs on the back of Peter’s neck. More joined it, until the air was filled with their cries. Peter looked at Rosemary, and saw her staring at him. She shrugged. “Wolves?” she mouthed.

The foreman turned towards the howls. He stalked off, deeper into the encampment. Rosemary let out her breath. She touched Peter’s arm and motioned for the culvert. They carefully sloshed their way over.

At the opening, Peter took two steps before realizing that Rosemary wasn’t following. He looked back, and saw her standing in the middle of the stream, her bloomers and chemise glowing in the moonlight, staring up at the entrance, her cheeks almost as pale. Her hands balled into fists.

He came back to her. “You okay?”

She took a deep breath. “Let’s go.” She stepped past the veil of moonlight.

He heard her footsteps steady in front of her, splashing in stray puddles. The water was too shallow to flow, but the bricks were slick and slimy, the stench oppressive. Peter breathed through his mouth. As darkness deepened, Rosemary’s steps faltered, and he bumped into her. “You’re sure you’re okay?” he whispered.

“It’s just dark,” she muttered. “And wet. And stinky. And dark.”

“We’ll light the candles as soon as we’re a little way from the entrance,” he said.

“How long will that be?”

“Just a little while longer.”

Rosemary clasped Peter’s hand hard, and they pushed forward.

“How come I never knew of your clustrophobia before?” asked Peter.

“I’ve never liked close places, you know that.”

“Yeah, but—”

“I told you,” she snapped. “It’s wet. Stinky. This is not some closet. Or cave. Though I hate caves too.” She halted. “Candles.”

“Are you sure?” He looked back. The entrance was a postage-stamp of moonlight.


He stared at the hunch of her shadow. “Okay. Hold one out.”

He patted his pockets for the matches. Rosemary’s breathing quickened. Finally he found them, and struck one on the box. And struck again. And again. The air screeched on his fourth try. Light dawned. Peter touched the flame to the outstretched wick. They blinked at the sudden brightness.

Then the match singed Peter’s fingers and he shook it out. The light dimmed to a small flame on the candle’s tip.

Rosemary touched a second candle to the first. The light flared up, then faded. They stood in a circle glowing as though lit by a dying flashlight.

“You got any more candles on you?” asked Peter.


Peter sucked his teeth. “These will have to do, then. Let’s go on.”

The brick pipe encircled them, red and black, gleaming with moisture. Rosemary shuddered. Holding their candles close to their chests, they pushed on.

Gradually a new sound sidled into hearing, a rush of flowing water. They glanced at each other and nodded. A few more steps, and the ceiling pulled away. A breeze brushed their cheeks, and the sound of a rushing stream filled their ears.

Peter took another step, but then Rosemary froze. “I can’t see.”

He turned. “What?”

“These candles,” she said. “The light doesn’t go far enough.”

Peter looked around and saw she was right. Other than a thin circle of light on the bricks around their feet, and a glimmer off the walls of the half pipe, all around them was darkness. The cavern echoed with emptiness, black as a blindfold.

Peter swallowed. “Okay. I thought the candles would give us more light than this.”

“The wicks are too short,” said Rosemary. She scratched at the nib. “If I could remove some of this wax—”


The candle snuffed out. Rosemary cursed beneath her breath. She touched the snuffed candle to the first, too fast, and killed that light too. Darkness descended.

They stood for a moment in silence.

“I don’t think we’ve thought this through,” said Rosemary, her voice tight.

“No, we’re okay,” said Peter firmly. “I’ll just light another match.” He struck one. He struck it again. And again. And again. He grunted, frustrated. “I thought matches from the past would be easier to light. You know, less worries about safety? C’mon you stupid—” The match flared and broke. Peter started, and the broken match and the box slipped from his hand, the box spilling out its matches. There was a splash like rain, and the lit match snuffed out.

There was another long silence. Then Peter said, “Oops.”

More silence.

“Peter?” said Rosemary.



“I—” he cleared his throat. “I dropped the matches.”

“Saw that.”


A moment passed.

“You have any more?” asked Rosemary.


Rosemary’s breathing began to echo off the walls.

“I think we should go back,” said Peter.

Rosemary turned sloshed upstream, keeping close to the wall. Peter struggled to keep up. “Rosemary,” he hissed. “Quietly. You’ll wake the foreman.”

She spoke through clenched teeth. “Get. Out. Now.”

He caught up with her as the moonlit exit pulled into view. He grabbed her and held her as she struggled. “It’s okay,” he whispered in her ear. “We’re there. We’re as good as out. Calm down. Be quiet.”

She held him. He could feel her heart thumping. She took a deep breath. “It’s the dark. I was okay when I had light. We need better light.”

“We’ll get some. Let’s get out of here.”

They walked out of the sewer in silence, Rosemary walking like someone who did not want anyone to see her run. They kept low. When they passed beneath the hoarding, Rosemary charged out of the stream and lay on the embankment beside her discarded corset and overdress.

“I’m sorry,” she gasped. She beat the ground with her fist. “This is stupid!”

He touched her shoulder. “It’s okay. We’ll do it right, next time. We’ll get lanterns; something that won’t burn out. We’ve got plenty of time. You said time’s moving slow on the other side of the portal, so Theo will hardly know we’ve gone.”

Rosemary closed her eyes. She thumped the ground again.

Rosemary’s clustrophobia was touched upon in Fathom Five and is firmly established in chapter one of The Young City

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