Shaped of Rain and Candlelight: A Mind Cathedral for Patricia A. McKillip

The McKillip section of our library.

Here’s the Mc section of our home library. When I was 13, 14–early high school–it was the first section of the public library I’d always go to, just in case there was something new by McCaffrey, McKinley, or McKillip. I barely registered the names of any authors back then, but those three I knew by name, by flavor, by savor. I read and re-read them relentlessly, but the older I grew, it was mostly McKillip I returned to.

Oh, I want to write this, you know? I’ve been yearning to write this, ever since I heard that McKillip passed from us. Tina Connolly told me over Zoom, and I think I said, “No!” in that voice we always use when there’s no other word to say, no other voice to use. “No.” The most useless word in the world, under those circumstances. But I was glad I heard it from a friend, and not just read it on the internet. I don’t know why. “Glad” seems the wrong word anyway.

I’ve been meaning to write something all day today. I’ve been waiting all week till today, when I knew I had some time. I had a certain tone in mind. It was going to be so beautiful. I was going to tell you things about what McKillip meant to me, but with such subtlety, with such grace and wit and wisdom that you wouldn’t even read words on a screen anymore, but instead find yourself at the Cloisters gazing at one of the unicorn tapestries, only each thread was suddenly become a living luminous thing, and then the unicorn would turn her head and stare back at you, and you’d fall headfirst into the dark pool she was drinking from.

That’s what I meant to do, not just tell you about it. I meant to give you what McKillip means to me. So that’s why I hate writing this right now. Because it’s hard. Because I’m crying. Because I can’t do my more than a quarter-of-a-century’s worth of feeling the justice it deserves. Nor honor her, who shaped so much of my mind into what it is today, as I wish.

I didn’t know McKillip, but her mind utterly occupied mine.

And I’m not the only one, not by orders of magnitude. I don’t know how many blogs and articles and reflections and memorials are being written right now, in private or for the public. I don’t know how many of you have candles lit, like I do now. I don’t know how many of you are rereading your precious hoard of McKillip’s works. I know my engineer Judy is. I know several friends on Instagram are. It’s what I’d be doing right now too if I didn’t have stacks and towers and piles and heaps of books to read for the award I’m helping to judge. But right now, all I really want to do is read all my McKillip books again, and get the ones I don’t have from the library.

And even though I’m crying now, I want more time to cry. I don’t want another week, another month, to pass me by again, full of busyness and trivialities and cookies and tweets and just, you know, going on. I don’t want to go on right now. I want to go in. I want to go back into McKillip’s arcade of cathedrals. She built them for me. She built them for us. Luminous palaces. Living tapestries. There are dragons there that are never the dragons we think they are. There are cygnets. And firebirds. And Corbet Lynn. And Morgon of Hed. And Raederle of An. And the pig witch. And the harpist named Deth. And a woman named Saro.

I didn’t know McKillip. Not like the people who knew her knew her. I think we passed by each other at one or two conventions. I might have said hello once? But I think she was very shy. At least, that is my distant impression. And I know I was very awed and also shy. And I’m not sure if we did ever meet, or if I imagined we did, or if we did once smile at each other and make actual eye contact. I don’t know. I can’t remember. I hate that.

I have a Zoom appointment with a dear friend in just 45 minutes, and I don’t regret or resent it, but, you know… I also just want to go away for a month and be with these books and no one else. I want to do McKillip that honor. I want to give myself that gift. But perhaps time like that–time to read, time to dwell, time, even, to drown–perhaps that kind of timeless time only exists in childhood or Faerieland. All we’re left with, in adulthood, is yearning. And maybe that’s the cathedral I have to enter instead. It, too, seems appropriate for this moment of McKillip’s passing.

I can’t even tell you… When Ellen Datlow accepted my novella Desdemona and the Deep for Tor.com, and I told her I would maim or kill or possibly die to have Patricia A. McKillip blurb me (only it was all in a very professional email, I’m sure, with only a few ALL CAPS and maybe only intimations of violence instead of just putting it all out in writing like that), and then she did, I don’t even know the sound I made.

No. I do. The day I got the email with that blurb, I’m sure I made a sound that sounded like one of those Great Shouts that sometimes get wizards in trouble at the College of Riddle-Masters at Caithnard. I’m sure it shattered windows and scared the hiccups out of our local black hole. And then, to see her name on the cover of my book, HER NAME, paired with mine, how I was filled with an abiding joy (that lives in me yet), a feeling of forever, of immortality, of impossibility… Well, I can’t tell you. I mean, I just tried, but you weren’t there. Just imagine me dancing.

The cover of Desdemona and the Deep, with a blurb by Patricia A. McKillip

The whole quote was:

Desdemona and the Deep is a wild romp through the lives of the rich, the perils of the poor, and a stupefying, complex underworld through which the champagne-swilling, shoe-loving heroine must find her way to right a wrong in her world.  The writing is dense with poetry, festooned to the eyelids–occasionally to the gills and other body-parts–with fantastic imagery that comes together in the end in unexpected and entirely satisfying ways.”

Patricia A. McKillip

It was the phrase “occasionally to the gills and other body parts” that got me. Because it was funny. It wasn’t just a blurb about poetry, it was poetry and gills. I felt understood. I felt, I don’t know, hugged or something. And she… SHE… wrote that for ME.

As I’ve been thinking of McKillip these last few days, I think mostly of the word “shaped.” I don’t know when it was, or on which re-read of which of her books, that I noticed McKillip’s use of the verb “shaped.” It was in every book. Sometimes it occured several times a page. Things were shaped out of air, out of light, of water. Things came into being, or were called, deliberately, by forces we could not understand. And that act of calling was always understood as “shaping.”

McKillip shaped me too, and continues to do so. I picked up one of the Riddle-Master books last year and experienced an intense pleasure, both familiar and alien, as I read a story I knew but with a different understanding. She was like a potter, but instead of clay, she sat at a wheel of creation, her hands full of electricity, whirling lightning into worlds that she teleported directly into my brain. Yes, she shaped me. She shaped my very haecceity.

The Changeling Sea was so slim a book. So slender. I read all the character parts aloud. I cried and cried. I inhabited the main character. I fell in love with both the sea-dragon-prince and the wild sea-eyed prince and the tousled wizard who seemed sometimes more like a jester. I loved and wanted them all. I wanted to fling my heart off every sea cliff, after every trail of moonlight. I will never forget her queen, bowed down by pearl. Or perhaps I will, in time, as I deteriorate, but when I do, I will be losing an integral part of myself.

Winter Rose? Winter Rose. Those sisters. That journey into the snow and ice and darkness. That journey into depression and personal history and the desperate love of family going far from you, and you would step into any mushroom circle, any fall of light, to save the ones you love. Winter Rose. One of my absolute favorites. It lives in me. I feel it on the bottoms of my bare feet. It muddies me. It makes me want to never comb my hair again.

I feel like a wild-eyed sea prince writing that down. I fear all of this sounds dramatic and… I don’t know “so much too much,” as Dickens writes. But it’s what’s sitting in my chest right now. “His heart is a bird on a spit in his chest,” as Persephone sings to Hades–and that is the feeling in my chest–and while Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown may have nothing to do with Patricia A. McKillip, I can only say, at least I have a song by the goddess of death I can sing for one of my holy muses of fantasy, who is gone from us.

She is gone from us.

I wish I had a hundred more such songs to sing.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Shaped of Rain and Candlelight: A Mind Cathedral for Patricia A. McKillip

  1. sitaluna

    Oh my dear. I’m glad you were able to write this. I hope you have some time, sometime soon, to have a luxurious re-read of some of your favorite McKillip stories, if not all. My heart hugs yours.

  2. I read all of this into my marrow. ❤ I love you.

  3. Juliette Wade

    This is beautifully said. I share your deep connection with The Changeling Sea; I was always yearning for it to be longer, though every word was perfect and I couldn’t imagine adding more. Thank you so much.

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