We can all use some light in the midst of the fray.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite hillsides to comb was down a steep embankment behind my house through a thicket of red willow across a small creek with a stepping stone named Snubbie. The marshy creek bottom quickly dried out as the hill began its steep ascent to the acres of cow pasture above. Jeffrey pines grew too sparse to be a forest, but their needles and seeds scattered across the dry grass. I followed the zigzag of deer trails, searching for treasure.

I’d comb that hillside for rocks, broken purple glass, and square nails. Miner shanties used to populate this hillside but a wildfire in the 1950s razed the cabins, leaving behind only broken bottles and hand-forged nails. I didn’t know of anyone else who followed the deer trails. I never saw anybody. Who would hang out on this hillside but a curious kid who liked to collect things from the past or sit on a boulder two-thirds of the way up and ponder.

The deer had a great view of my small second hometown; a place where I had lived from the ages of seven to eighteen. From the boulder, I could see down into the bowl where Markleeville sat. I knew every house, every occupant, every shed, and every dog. I knew most of the cats. I could see the cow pastures above the old ranch behind the stone library across town, the road that rose and disappeared into the forests toward Grover Hot Springs State Park, and the old white schoolhouse. The cow pastures atop the hill behind me and the ones across town were like plateaus at the edge of forest. Towering above everything were the granite crags of Silver, Reynolds, and Raymond Peaks. When I was a kid, they still had year-round glaciers.

Glacial snow, as I recall, was grainy like coarse salt. Up close it was dirty and compact. The Sierra glaciers are all gone. The peaks of my childhood look naked in photographs. I wish I could recall more details like the way water trickled out from under ice shelves that formed a glacier’s edge, or what types of tiny wildflowers grew nearby in the summer. Despite the crazy amount of snow dumped over the mountains by atmospheric rivers. Over 650 inches. Crazier yet is that the snow won’t fix California’s long-standing drought or humanity’s short-sightedness in damming the rivers of the West. Those glaciers are not likely to return.

Ever? Well, who knows about ever.

In a Dream, I’m back on that familiar hillside. I’m elevated like a director in a crane, overlooking a movie set. Immediately, two riders gallop their twin sorrel horses straight up that steep hillside. Hooves hit the ground hard, kicking up rocks and dirt. The tails of the horses are dark red and black. My family once had a horse with a tail like that. Deacon. A steady sure-footed quarter horse with cow-sense. It means he did his job on the trail or in the corral. He was dependable. As the riders race up the hill and I follow from my observational crane position, someone is shooting. Rifle fire rounds out the Old West vibe of this Dream image. On top of the hill, the riders are gone and I’m back on my feet.

Instead of the cow-pastures I remember, I stand in a luminous space. The grass is so tall and so vivid with an other-worldly light shining through every blade. Flowers bloom, nod, and rebloom in deep colors like LED globes. The light of this space is undeniable, yet the forest surrounding me is tall, deep, and dark. Not dark in a foreboding way. More like, impenetrable. Safe. A cow pasture sanctuary. Just me, the grass, and the reviving flowers. I’m not a cow — or a calf, bull, or steer — but I feel this image feeds me.

Last week, I didn’t really teach. I counseled. I encouraged. I asked questions, and let my students hijack a class with a lively discussion that had nothing to do with ENG I03 or writing or Our Missing Hearts. Friday was a snow day. We all stayed home and I didn’t record a class or assign any homework. We have much to process with the closing of our university.

Moving forward, I completely rewrote the second half of our class, following my intuition and passion for studying stories through the imagery of film. I’m teaching the class in a way that will also encourage my students during a difficult transformation. They will answer the same journal question every week: What possibilities do you have this week? It’s my way of reminding them that we will take each week as it comes and look for possibilities and not get hung up on problems like the two riders chasing after gunshots. We will watch video clips and correlate the analysis to our book. And, of course, we will write 99-word stories in class.

Over the weekend, I got Todd to watch Everything Everywhere All at Once. I had seen it at the Film Fest and it set my brain on fire (in a good way). I thought the story was beautiful and absurd. The acting was incredible as evidenced by all the Academy Awards. Michelle Yeoh was brilliant. Ke Huy Quan delivered a powerful performance. Todd couldn’t follow along. The flashing images that lit me up, agitated his brain. The movie made him angry, but he said he was happy that I liked it. A small balm for not being able to share the experience with him fully.

Here’s what’s in store for my students. First, we will watch a film analysis focused on the idea that Waymond Wang (played by Ke Huy Quan) has no character arc. I can’t wait to draw this on the whiteboard. It’s a profound treatment of a secondary character and one that breaks stereotypes of beta males. Then we will watch two clips that focus on the actor’s achievements as a former refugee with few opportunities in Hollywood and his inspiring Academy acceptance speech. We will discuss secondary characters in the novel we are reading and how we can relate to the actor achieving a life-long dream. By watching film clips we can learn to analyze novels.

By writing in class, we will learn to process our thoughts as well. Images are powerful whether they find us in memory, dreams, film, books, fairy tales, or in an impossibly lit cow pasture.

March 20, 2023, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about shots fired. Where is this story taking place? Is there urgency or surprise? Who is there? What happens next? Go where the prompt leads!

  1. Submit by March 25, 2022. Please use the form below if you want to be published in the weekly collection. The Collection publishes on the Wednesday following the next Challenge. Stories must be 99 words. Rules & Guidelines.
  2. Writers retain all copyrights to any stories published at Carrot Ranch.
  3. A website or social media presence is not required to submit. A blog or social media link will be included in the title of any story submitted with one.
  4. Please include your byline with your title on one line. Example: Little Calves by Charli Mills. Your byline can be different from your name.
  5. Please include the hashtag #99WordStories when sharing either the Challenge or Collection posts on social media.

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