When I was a young child, I believed my Great-grandma Fernandes was a day older than me. Never mind, I was barely able to fill out the smallest of cowgirl boots, and she had wrinkles galore. My elder was born Clara Irma Kincaid in 1903, to a Scots rancher whose family pushed cattle from Missouri to California during the Gold Rush, and a Basque justice of the peace in a little town called Tres Pinos. They were a Catholic family, and Clara was smack in the middle of 16 children. She married William Michael Fernandes, a Portugues cowboy, and they had half as many children as her parents. My dad was one of three children, and I’m an only child. We’ve been on the DNA reduction plan, evidently.
The reason I thought Great-grandma was a day older than me is that she was born May 20 and me May 21. Yes, today is my birthday. I have a bottle of Cava, a proper cake from Roy’s, and a kayak. After I water the growing gardens, I’m headed to Lady Lake Superior for the day to test drive the new Tribe (hopefully, I don’t test the new life vest, but I’m prepared). Cake and cava are later for the sunset.
Born into a buckaroo family (sixth-generation) on the cusp of Taurus/Gemini under the laidback number one hit of 1967 (Groovin’), I rode horses before I could walk. Like any ranch child, I was tossed on the back of every critter that romped, including goats. At some point, I must have licked one because I can’t stand the taste of goat cheese. I had my own pony, Barney, by the time I was three. Ponies are good starter horses because they provide a shorter fall and lighter weight when they step on you. And Barney threw me and stepped on me several times. I was five when I got my first horse, a mustang named Acorn. Sadly, he went blind.
That fact recently resurfaced as I’m drafting Danni’s story for my MFA thesis. My peers and I are writing query letters, and an agent who interests me likes animals in novels but in unusual ways. When I wrote the letter, I included that the protagonist had a blind horse. It was a surprise to me — often, the author is the last to know of these details. I remembered Acorn and how we didn’t ship him off to be dog food (a reality in the not so distant past of ranching). In fact, most of our horses came to us as auction rescues. Buckaroos are known for horse skills and can rehabilitate troubled horses that others dumped for low prices at the sale yards.
We gave Acorn a second life, turned out with the main cattle herd in the huge grassy pastures on the Paicines Ranch (this was definitely not our ranch, but where I spent a good chunk of childhood as my grandfather, Clara’s son, was the foreman for many years). Paicines was an old Mexico land grant spread where Clara’s grandparents ran sheep during the Gold Rush. I didn’t have any ’49 miners in the family, but kin who followed to feed them. In those pristine valleys, Acorn stayed with the cattle — mane and tail growing long, walking in circles. I’ve been researching blind horses and discovered that they are ridable. Once blind, if they trust their rider, they can still be ridden. It’s the going blind that causes the greatest difficulties. And, some interesting details to carry out a plot.
At its core, Miracle of Ducks is about trust and loyalty. Secondary characters help stretch the protagonist along her arc and further the plot points. Danni’s horse, Blackjack, was a dink Ike picked up cheap. Dann had the skills to soothe the horse and built a trusting relationship before realizing the animal was going blind. This has opened up much of my western heritage, passing my experiences and stories to Danni. It also brings back much of the language associated with my roots, which is a challenge as a writer. I know what is accurate, but my peers (my first readers) do not. Therefore, I have to find a balance between authenticity and clarity. The horse becomes an analogy and a canvas for me to paint the western colors of people and place.
I’m learning the deeper meaning of what writing 99-words has taught me — writing is exploratory. When we arrange words to tell a story, we shift our own perspective and uncover new details. This is what I love about creativity — the unexpected discoveries. I also think this is what artists fear losing. If we have to color within the lines or punctuate according to the rules we might miss the treasure we know is buried in our process. The difference between pantsers and plotters is how much of that creativity you allow to drive. Plotters try to control it, and pantsers ride with the wind.
In the end, you need to be both. You won’t lose your gems or that connectivity to the creative impulse if you learn the rules of craft or plot our novels. A plot, by the way, is also a work in progress. There’s flexibility for discovery. In workshops, we have to be as open to play as we are here at Carrot Ranch. When a professor assigns us a curveball –write our next scene as a dream sequence — you learn to just do it. When your peers suggest structural, plot, or character changes, you give it a go. You don’t have to keep the revisions, but I’ve found, just as I have with regular practice of writing 99-words, that I’m a more nimble writer — a plantser.
It’s good to reach a level where you are no longer offended by critique. Some people have a better page-side manner, and I firmly believe that critique must be productive. A poor delivery of good points doesn’t help a writer grow. But learning how to deliver feedback with kindness will make you better at your craft and appreciated among your peers. Now, when I go into workshop, I feel excited. I know my peers are going to challenge me on clarity and craft. I know they will let me know what is working, but they will also make suggestions for improvement. Going back to the scene for revision no longer feels painful as it once did.
I have a blind horse to lead the way.
(Disclaimer: I am not 100 today! But what a gift to live 99 years plus one.)
May 21, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about 100 candles. What do they light, and why? Think about contrast or symbolism. Are the candles large, small, or stars in the night? Go where the prompt leads!
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A Light to His Darkness by Charli Mills
A degenerative disease robbed Blackjack of his eyesight. When a moose busted through the pasture fence, fear drove Danni’s blind horse to follow the two old Percherons who embarked on the equivalent of an equine joyride. They had wandered back to the barn without Blackjack. Now it was dark, and Danni could barely see in the murk of the forest on a moonless night. She found him snorting, blind eyes wide. He smelled her and whinnied. “Steady.” He remained still. Each step home was a light to Blackjack. Danni counted one-hundred candles by the time they reached the barn.