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Troubled times have come to my hometown.
The prompt photo shows an undated modern main street of Markleeville, California where I lived from 1974 to 1985. In 1988, I returned to marry my Ranger in cowboy boots in a meadow where I rode my horse and pushed cattle during the summers of my teen years. Markleeville has been described as picturesque, tiny, historic, and beautiful.
The town sits in a bowl, flanked by irrigated ranch pastures, surrounded by forest and beneath the peaks I know so well I can trace their outlines with my finger pointed to the sky. Raymond looms tallest over 10,000 feet in elevation. Markleeville is nearly 5,500 feet. It’s a mountain town.
Like most boom and bust towns out West, white settlers built where they could take resources. Lumber, grazing, minerals. Jacob Marklee built a toll-bridge in 1861, anticipating a mining boom. Already, the Comstock Lode of 1859 at Virginia City, Nevada sparked interest in the eastern side of the Sierra. Jacob filed his property claim in Douglas County, Nevada. Having grown up in Markleeville, it’s logical to think of it as Nevada. But it isn’t. Jacob filed in the wrong state. He ran cattle where I gathered cattle for the Ted Bacon Ranch. He built a house next to the one where I grew up. Jacob lost a gunfight in 1864 and the county courthouse and sheriff’s department now reside on his mis-filed ranch along Markleeville Creek.
Makes me wonder what Jacob called the creek. Or what the Washoe place names are? Funny thing about “discovery” in America is that the land came with its Indigenous. In 1970, a newspaper report quoted ol’ Weesie (you might spot her here in the Ranch Yarns as “Frankie”). It was one of many articles California cities over the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains wrote about the quaint town with its famous trout fishing and fresh air. Notably, the Washoe are left out of that article and many others. They weren’t even roadside attractions. Invisible.
I write stories to make visible those who live unseen. Weesie/Frankie is one of my childhood heroes. I saw and heard my elders and my Native neighbors. To me they weren’t invisible. They gave me a deep appreciation for my home, rooting me in its history and culture. Alpine County is an ancient place older than the 1864 house I grew up in next to the Markleeville General Store. I knew all its nooks and crannies. I was the weird kid who rollerskated to get her horse from his pasture. I rode and knew the secrets of the land.
Isn’t that the way of hometowns? As Bruce Springsteen sings in his classic My Hometown, an elder — an uncle, parent, neighbor, mentor — takes us for a ride and says, “Take a good look around. This is your hometown.”
This song has always cradled my heart. Time stops and I’m transported to my hometown. I used to run “with a dime in my hand” to the school bus stop across from that brown building in the prompt photo. It’s the infamous biker bar called the Cutthroat Saloon. It once graced Silver Mountain City until the English money ran out and Lord Chalmers deserted his wife Nettie. My first foray into historical fiction was about Silver Chalmers, the daughter who disappeared. The Cutthroat (named after a species of trout native to Alpine County, not pirates or bikers) was the Alpine Hotel and after 3,000 miners, merchants, loggers and families left the mining town, residents of Markleeville moved the structure. No a small feat.
Why did I have dimes in my hand? Because the bartender would toss the coins from his tip jar into the road every night after 2 am. Eight years old, and I ran to the stop in the morning to pick up dimes and sometimes a quarter or two. I think he only lasted that school year and no other bar tender shared his tips (or lured children into the highway, not that there was any traffic).
Memories go up in flames. Markleeville and every stop along the bus route is evacuated. The Tamarack Fire rages zero percent contained. Fire has confronted the town since 1866 when the first Markleeville General Store burned to the ground. I counted over a dozen fires in my newspaper research from 1885, 1939, 1947, 1948, 1954, 1955, 1984, 1887, 2008, 2015 and many smaller burns in between. What struck me as I read is that the fires used to be much smaller, even ones that blazed through second growth timber (meaning what forest grew back after the heavy logging for all the area mines during the Comstock days).
I smell trees. Jeffrery pines. The trees of my childhood. They might look similar to the Ponderosa pines, but they smell distinctly sweet. Like vanilla. I’ve never lived anywhere else out west that carried the scent of Jeffreys. It’s arid on the eastern slopes of the Sierras thus thick with sagebrush. I can smell sage, too. I can’t find any evidence that the seeds of the Jeffreys are edible, but likely I learned on the school playground from my Washoe friends that they taste as sweet as the trees smell. I can remember squatting on the ground beneath a particularly large pine, cracking open pine seeds and eating them at recess.
It all smolders now.
The Tamarack fire has burned so hot that the teams can’t fight it with air retardant. In my memory, air power was vital to fighting forest fires in Alpine County. It’s unfathomable to me that these latter fires out West are so much hotter that they create their own storm systems and blacken the sky. My dad was a firefighter. Like many, he was a volunteer, and at one time a crew chief for the local engine. I remember him telling about the firestorm that overtook him and his crew. They were on the line, protecting structures on Mesa Vista, when the storm blew up. He said it sounded like a freight train. The air crisped so hot his contact lenses shriveled and fell out like grit. They sought shelter under the fire engine and a borate bomber dumped its load on the truck, saving their lives.
The following year, in July of 1987, another firestorm blew up and burned Woodfords, Alpine Village and Mesa Vista where my parents lived. When I couldn’t reach them, Todd and I drove from Fallon, Nevada, and took dirt roads I knew so well to get around the road blocks. We got as far as the Walker Camp (a Washoe village) and Jeffrey pines blazed like torches. We watched flames shoot impossibly high into the sky and churning smoke. We could go no farther. A July 30, 1987 newspaper reported eye witnesses, one saying:
“It looks like a nuclear war,” says Lt. Stan Pope of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department.30 Jul 1987, Page 3, Reno Gazette, “Alpine County Fire”
I remember the bombed out look. I remember the grief and determination to rebuild. I remember the relief that my parents’ home had survived a second fire in two years. Another home they lived in, the one where the bear got into their kitchen garbage can one night, sitting on the floor like an overgrown toddler, that house sits at the edge of the burn. The horse pasture on fire. I wish I had my favorite photo of them dressed up in their finest turquoise western outfits ready for a wedding. The photo below is in the background of that shot. This is where they lived. Markleeville is just down the road.
As I’ve been following the #TamarackFire, memories burn. I can’t help but recall what it felt like to ride Captain up this trail or that. I remember where the old barbed wire wrapped around a stand of trees, surrounding the sunken graves of unnamed Washoe. It’s not how they buried their dead. They built platforms. I know where that sacred burial place is, too. I can tell you all the places I used to swim, along creeks, streams, and ditches. I search for names among residents and those commenting on the social media channels to find the familiar people from my hometown. It’s a different generation. A turnover of names.
The woman in this video talks about the stress her parents are going through. They lost everything in the Acorn Fire (the one in 1987). She wasn’t born yet. Her parents were at my wedding that year, months after losing everything. I used to babysit her older brother.
I haven’t mustered the courage to call my parents. I don’t want to stress my dad. He remains a staunch conservationist, an old school mountain man semi hermit who has old ways to maintain the health of the forests. He fought for years to get officials to listen to him. He always said this would happen. Our hometown is forever changed. All his hard work to log in a conservative way, up in smoke so thick satellites can’t register the hot spots.
Here’s a comparison of where I got married.
Todd and I rode in the surry pulled by Jet from Markleeville to Turtle Rock Park where we had our reception.
Hometowns change. As Bruce Springsteen sings, jobs leave, people leave. Natural disasters, wars, sickness. Every generation confronts changes from aging to obliteration. I’m reminded that it’s not the hometown that matters as much as it is the community. This is no longer my community, I haven’t been back since the late 1980s. I feel confident that the existing community will rebuild and hold each other up. I wish them the best. I’m grateful that the Hung A Lel Ti residents can go back, although they may have to evacuate again. I hope they can be part of the greater rebuilding, no longer invisible to the community but part of its healing.
I’ve been fascinated and horrified by the power of forest fires all my life. I’ve been as close as one can get to witnessing fire’s destructive beauty. It is burning and yet it is renewal. There are pine trees that only open their cones to propagate seeds through fire. Indigenous people lived for thousands of years in Alpine County. They lived with fire. Our century of fire suppression was misguided. We need better, wiser solutions to live in harmony with the awe-inspiring environments that surround our hometowns. I wrote a forest fire in my novel Miracle of Ducks and how it brought out the best in the community. How it forced Danni to confront death and life.
This next week, I’m taking a vacation with my good friend. You might know her. She hangs out with Kid and Pal. Some say she writes them. Maybe they write her. Know that I’ll be in good company, sitting along the lake shore, camping and savoring campfire stories. She’ll get an earful of all the stories this fire has brought to light for me. I even have an Alpine County Bigfoot story for her. I will not post a collection or challenge next week, so you have two weeks to ponder your own hometowns. Or hometown for the characters who have a story to give you.
July 22, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a hometown. It can be your hometown or a fictional one. Who is there? When is it set? What is happening? Go where the prompt leads!
**NOTE: TWO WEEK DEADLINE** Respond by August 3, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.
Markleeville by Charli Mills
I’m eight years old running after the bus, crying. A car stops. “Don’t cry honey. We’ll catch the bus.” I don’t know who she is, but I get in her car. She speeds, making good on her promise. She’s the mom of a girl in my class. I don’t make friends easily. I prefer adults, especially the old-timers no one visits. They tell me stories, like what Monitor looked like when it wasn’t a vacant flat of sagebrush. Hometown will always be the people who saw me. I carry stories of Markleevile in my heart long after they’ve gone.
I’m having a serious meltdown.
Mause ate my turquoise Keens. She chewed through the straps by the start of warm weather. Keens are my power center. Keens have seen me through adventures, interviews of farmers, and recovery from back surgeries. Keens give me stable footing. They are my travel companions, my outdoor gear. This particular pair went to LA when I won a scholarship to a writers conference. The color symbolized my dream to teach writing and welcome writers to retreat space.
It’s not the first time I’ve lost a pair of Keens to a wild animal (puppies are feral beasts). You can read my 2012 lament to Keens lost and then found destroyed along the Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior in A Tale of Two Keens. But something has changed.
They don’t make Keens like they used to. It’s more than fashion travesty when a brand you love changes. It feels like betrayal. I was loyal, why couldn’t you be loyal too, Keen? It’s not just me. Other jilted shoe-lovers mourn the loss of a dependable brand. So far, since the beginning of May, I’ve ordered and returned four pairs of Keens. None of them fit. I tried different sizes, styles and genders. The fit was the whole reason for our foot affair. The shape is gone, the love with it.
I tried Merrels and kept a pair. But they are not Keens. If I walk to long in them, the front straps rub my pinky toes.
Today, a pair of coral Chacos arrived in a box. The river rafters and hiking enthusiasts out West swear by this brand. I’ve snubbed my nose, content with Keens. Now, I rip my package in desperation for a new shoe mate. Immediately, I swing a foot sideways to place a sandal. I can’t get my toe under the right strap. Why are there so many straps? A folded card has a series of instructions numbered at each strap and shoe placement. Easy as 1-2-3.
Uh, no. I have to sit down because I’m not understanding the entanglement. It’s a sandal. My foot should slide in place. This is when dyslexia pops up to help my brain with a problem. I can’t figure out anything left/right oriented. Like the one way streets in Minneapolis because they use the circle with a line to say don’t turn the direction of the lined arrow except my brain can’t interpret which direction I’m not supposed to go and every time, I’d turn down the wrong way. In Zoom meetings I point the wrong direction to things behind me. I struggle with math, maps, phonemes, pronunciation, and time.
Cue the meltdown because I don’t have time for this strap nonsense.
There I was, sitting on the couch, attempting to put my foot through a puzzle of straps when I pulled the toe straps wide open. You see, if the directions had been written out instead of a numbered visual, I could have comprehended how the Chaco straps pull through the bed of the sandal. I managed to get one on my foot. Then the next foot. Mause ate the instructions while I fussed.
I stood up and one foot said, “Okay,” and the other said, “wtf…” I started to spin. I didn’t intend to spin but that directional disorientation couldn’t figure out which way my foot was supposed to go. I rotated in a circle and still couldn’t get my foot straight on the sandal bed. The straps held. At times like these, I usually laugh. Because, what else can I do? Well, I did the other thing. I burst into tears.
It’s been a week in two days, and not just because I can’t find a pair of sporting sandals. I’m overwrought by unscheduled time and competing tasks and wondering who in my house is crazier? (I’m pointing at Mause, who’s looking at me.) Am I too busy to call the numbers I researched to search for answers to where does the mind of an aging veteran go? Or am I really as tired as my bones feel? Despite it all, good news rises in the midst of chaos.
Finlandia University offered me the Adjunct Instructor position. I have two classes to teach this fall semester! Adjunct means contract. They’ll hire me as long as there are classes available. It’s great because I’ll have a base income to cover me while I build my education platform here. It gives me flexibility without having to force my feral writing brain back into a 9-to-5. It’s also a foot in the door to the Academic World. It’s beyond what my turquoise Keens had hoped for!
The transition is only a season. I hope for days that fit better into my weeks. I hope for less confusing straps and triggering moments. Truly, I am grateful to have such trivial complaints as, “My dog ate my shoes.” But sometimes, we need to embrace the time of the dark moon and have a proper meltdown. Now, I can stop actively searching for work, which is a huge weight off my shoulders. Time to prepare for teaching!
As long as I don’t have to distinguish my left from my right.
July 15, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story using the word meltdown. You can use it to describe an event or emotional reaction. You can create a new meaning or explore the word origin. You can Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by July 20, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.
Years After the Meltdown by Charli Mills
His meltdown 25 years ago had terrified her.
Max refused to stroke the cat rubbing its head against her folded arms. She leaned against one of two posts holding up the front porch. The exterior needed sanding. Through the open door to the three-room cabin – kitchen, sitting room, bedroom – Max noted cooling cherry pies, lace curtains, jelly jars of garden flowers. What some would call “a woman’s touch.” Her dad lived alone.
She’d been seven when the church elders drove him from their South Range home, beating him with fists and folded newspapers. Mascara and tears streaking his face.
Mause proves me slow. She bounces and flies, covering ten times the territory of my pace. For each one foot in front of the other I step, she is rompy-bompy to the end of her leash and back asking, “Are you there yet?” I’m a slow-plodding T-Rex, so slow my bones are fossilizing.
The clear evidence of our different speeds of life emerged like a cliched smoking gun. I observed Mause watching me water flowers from the top of the deck. When I turned off the water, and closed the mudroom, I opened the basement door and screamed. The creature that leapt at me was not a massive Wolfrick spider or racoon. It was Mause.
The only explanation for her traveling the greater distance to beat me to the back door is that I’m slow. She is quicksilver.
Do you ever feel that way as a writer?
We seem to fall into two categories. The rompy-bompy book authors and the dinosaurs that follow. I’ve had other writers confess to me their concern. They worry that they are too slow when they learn their peers have published yet again and they are still hand-painting illuminations on a manuscript. To this I say, know and appreciate who you are as a writer. We can share paths as peers but we can not compare our strides. Long or short, our pace belongs to each of us.
We are free to change. Frankly, I have no desire to bounce like Mause. When I considered what took me so long, I realized I had paused. I noticed how the mudroom smelled like cedar because it’s where the sauna is. I scanned the garden shelves for any overlooked items that might want to go outside. I noted with satisfaction that I had enough tomato cages if my plants grow. A misplaced frying pan from our wandering days reminded me to add it to my camping gear. I felt the tickle of a cobweb and brushed it away from my face. I wondered, where did my jawline go and will I get it back or am I destined to become a fabulous crone? The idea scared and intrigued me. Only then did I reach for the basement door.
Surprise! Eight-month-old puppy paws reached up to punch my belly.
At first I wanted to believe in Mause’s magic (because she is). But I rationalized that she was smart enough to have seen me disappear into the mudroom from the deck and she flew through the porch door, across the sun room, through the kitchen, to the upstairs basement door, pushed it open, flew down the stairs across the painted cement floor to greet me. She was probably wiggling in anticipation as I meandered in my head.
I’m a processor who lives a rich life in my imagination. You can’t believe the universe inside. No wonder I slow down. I’m time traveling. While Mause zips from a leaf to a June bug, I’ve visited stars and written manifestos and Russian epics. I can be still in my body the way she can spring from paw to paw, spinning to catch her bobbed tail. In the end, we are all protons, energy that can’t be created or destroyed. Yet we can arrange ourselves infinitely. Believe what we want about what it all means.
Some of us write and publish quickly. Some of us compose in our heads and drag the suitcases around the world until we decide to drop a manuscript. It’s okay. Be you. I’m being me. Mause is Mause. “Unabashedly,” as a friend said to me earlier this week during a three-way conversation about societal pressures. I belong to a small group of Women Doing It Their Way. Each of us is on a different career path or entrepreneurialism. We were talking about how the fast pace of modern culture pressures us to be something we aren’t.
Who pressures us as writers? The quick answer might be ourselves. But where and when and from whom did we internalize the voices that tell us we are not enough? Not fast enough. Not smart enough. It warps our expectations. Soon we believe there is something wrong because even a dog moves quicker. But I reject that because I know the Writer that I am. I know that this…this moment…this right here, right now is my Writing Life.
I am the writer who spots a downy white feather against a blue sky and can watch it float on unseen drafts of air and by the time it lands on the head of a budding milkweed, I’ve constructed a thousand lives for the winged unicorn who dropped it. I am the writer with blood memory in a foreign land who sings to the bones of my ancestors mineralized on the shore of an inland sea none of them ever experienced. But there they are. I remember stones. I can’t remember home. I am the writer who believes in unicorns and have witnessed my dog become one. More on that in a bit because I’m a writer who likes to weave unlikely silken thought threads into a story that looks like a Bohemian sundress on a lumberjack. I’m a writer who sits a lot and needs a dog to take her for walks only to get lost in the green of summer trees, forgetting that time exists.
You don’t need to understand me. I don’t. I am many things I haven’t even begun to explore. But I am a writer and that’s what I do. I go deep. And I’m slow, observing the senses, emotions and mysteries beyond the single note of a robin happy for the sunset and smorgasbord of dusk-flying insects. Where was I? Oh, yes, Mause the Unicorn.
If you have children (grandchildren, or were a child) of a certain age of videos, you might be familiar with the classic, The Last Unicorn. An evil old man used a flaming bull to round up all the unicorns and drive them into the sea. If you look into the crest of white foaming waves, you can see them.
When the heat of what will probably be our hottest summer day drove me away from my desk, including the outside office, I sought relief at Lake Superior. Mause is young and still uncertain about water. But she’s determined to chase down waves. Lake Superior had little rollers on that hot day. I was waist deep, standing on tumbles stones, coaxing Mause to swim to me. A wave would rise and distract her. She crashed to shore in a cresting wave, and momentarily, white foam blended with white fur and the brown speckling morphed into rocks.
Mause disappeared in the spray like a unicorn. It was a moment of magic. She crested with several more waves and I laughed with delight at my captured puppy unicorn. Some of you might be afraid I’m going to make you write about unicorns…again. Do not fear. I have feathers on the brain. And communism.
I’m editing a fascinating historical novella about how easy it was for communists to dupe Americans during the Great Depression. I’ve been immersed in researching 1930s newspaper accounts regarding a spectacular international incident that links the Michigan Upper Peninsula to a spy trial in Finland. It has made me rethink how people reacted to the loss of jobs and lack of food. I tried my hand at exploring that time in my 99-word story.
Go be you and write to find who you are, knowing you can revise at any time. And remember, it doesn’t matter if you are fast or slow as long as you are living your Writer’s Life.
“To me success and fulfillment lead in two different directions: one outwardly to the hope of glory, the other inwardly to the guarantee of peace.”Rasheed Ogunlaru
July 8, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that features feathers. It can be a single feather or more. Where did the feather come from? Does it hold meaning to the character or story? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by July 13, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.
Red Feathers of 1932 by Charli Mills
She plucked the chicken, swiping a feather from her forehead. Now what, thought Nella. Dumplings tonight wouldn’t stop the hunger pains to come. No more eggs. No more breakfasts for loggers. Loggers turned to the rails. Hoboes for hire. She brushed off her mother’s borrowed apron. When she left the northern peninsula to teach in Detroit, she never imagined she’d return broke. But the economy crashed, no one could pay taxes and schools closed. Capitalism. She growled the word. It had robbed all workers down to the last chicken. Tonight, she’d join Frank at the meeting with the communists.
I was not the local celebrity riding the circuit on a tour bus. The twenty Vietnam vets and four of their wives were. Of course, we all thought the big star of the day’s road trip was the 90-year-old Korean veteran with his son along for escort. Our trip leader and bus driver represented the post 9/11 era and I was odd duck in between the Gulf War and Vietnam. A wife, not a soldier.
If ever I think I can’t do this, I look at the women before me. I call the Vietnam-era wives the long-haulers. They’ve been through stuff that would make Rambo quake in his combat boots. Every last one of them deserves a medal of honor. Even the ones who tap out.
But I’m not writing woes today.
Our trip to White Pine was about healing and respect with dignity. We all boarded the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center tour bus in Houghton and drove to White Pine 90 minutes away. The Vet Center in Houghton is across the lift bridge from where I live in Hancock. A ten minute drive from my home on Roberts Street.
White Pine, like most towns on the map in “copper country,” is a former company town built around a mine, one of the last to operate in our area. The place looks like something out of a dystopian novel after post-industrial decline, and yet, it is where we went. In a former mine administrative building or warehouse or large equipment depot, is an unlikely operation. Three men create and maintain replicas of the Vietnam Memorial known as The Wall. In an obscure corner of Upper Michigan, a region often left off of contemporary maps or mislabeled as Canada, a small organization houses The Moving Wall and its collected memorabilia.
Considering that the half-sized replica has toured all fifty states since before I graduated high school, I was surprised to find out how close such a solemn piece of history and healing is to my home. When our Vet Center arranged the tour, I signed on to go. When I lost Vet Center services, I asked to be included nonetheless. Then my services were reinstated. Point is, bears couldn’t keep me away.
And we did see a huge black bear but that was at lunch after our tour.
Most of my favorite Vietnam vets came for the ride. They came to seek what only each of them sought privately. They came out of curiosity. They came to support one another. The wives came to understand. They have carried a massive burden for forty-something years or more and they wanted to glimpse who they were in all of this. Dignity. Yes, we could agree that no matter the pain and folly, we all wanted to feel a sense of human dignity faced with participation in a great indignity that still reverberates throughout the world.
Vietnam vets rebelled. Vilified, gaslighted, and discarded, these soldiers started motorcycle gangs, turned to addictions, and demanded recognition for PTSD and moral injury. It’s hard to reconcile the men with canes, limps, and walkers disembarking our bus to the bad boys of their younger years. Yet, inside the warehouse of The Moving Wall, posters, photos, and bumper stickers on the wall capture the essence of their experiences. I watched as our group sucked breath at the enlarged photos that took them back to the place they try to forget.
The industry of the place didn’t keep them in dark thoughts, though. They expressed curiosity for the home-grown process to recreate plates of names through screen-printing and endless rubbing with a wet chemical compound. I hung out with one of my Ojibwe writers, and our most recent widower. I listened. We swapped jokes. I chose to ignore the sexist pin-ups. They pointed to familiar objects, told me childhood stories, but none spoke of Vietnam. All watched as the process enfolded.
That’s when I spotted an old photo that looked familiar.
A group of soldiers in uniform posed for a photo. When you know combat soldiers, you understand the body language. This is not a before ‘Nam photo. It oozes attitude and hides pain. You can tell it’s post-service. Behind the men, peeking over a shoulder and resting her hand as if to comfort and protect, is a woman who could have been my best friend. Kate wore her hair like that in the mid-seventies. Not only was she support for her Vietnam veteran, but she supported his friends, too. It wasn’t her, but it could have been any of my Vietnam-era Warrior Sisters.
It’s a rare photo that catches an invisible role. I’m captivated. It could be me. It is every veteran spouse.
I move on and catch one of my Warrior Sisters drawn to the photo. She stands before it a long time. I watch the screen-printing and glance back to my friend. Finally, she raises her phone. She snaps a shot of the same photo I saved, too. I catch up with her in the “saloon” to sign the guest book. It’s set up like an in-country bar with posters, jukebox, and memorabilia. She startles and says, “This is back in time. I wonder if the jukebox works.”
Next, my writer friend walks in and startles. “They got the lights right,” he says. I look up and notice the lights are covered with a fabric I don’t recognize.
Another Warrior Sister walks in and says, “Oh, my.”
I sit with them. Then I startle. I spot a poster for a rodeo where four generations of my family rode, including me. Although I didn’t ride bulls like my father, grandfather and great-grandfather did in Salinas. I also see a burlap sack with a bull head and the message, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.” No kidding, that is the first piece of writing advice anyone ever gave me when I was but a teen, writing for the local newspaper. We left the time capsule, comforted to find the sun shining, the year 2021.
We lingered only because it’s slow, boarding a bus with bad knees, back surgeries, and bullet holes. Our rucksacks shared. We share the pain. We share the jokes. We share touches and hugs from behind. We head to lunch and break bread while the biggest black bear we’ve ever seen munches outside (they feed bears at the Konteka). We ask the waitress if the bowling alley is open. She explains the difficulties of COVID rules, like having to wipe down the balls afterward. <Insert Warrior Sister dirty joke here.> We howl with laughter, making the men blush (that’s how we get back at ’em for the pin-ups).
The bus ride home feels too short. Our spirits are high, our bellies full, and we are all connected, everyone of us in this small group on a VA bus. I share my search for a Finnish Tree Wizard. I get ideas where to find one. The 90-year-old roles his eyes. He’s a Finn. We hug and laugh at the Vet Center parking lot. One of the vets shares eggs with us “gals.” They’re from his pet chickens. He won’t accept money for them. I make a mental note to send him some books I think he’d like to read.
We slip into obscurity, no longer on the celeb VA bus. Until we share the next bear sighting.
July 1, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about “the old photograph.” What is captivating about it? Where did it come from? How does it incite a story? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by July 6, 2021. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.
The Old Photograph by Charli Mills
She found him in the 1979 yearbook. The bottom row. The old photo wasn’t vintage. Some would argue it was modern. He played football. Four years. He sat shirtless, his blonde hair long, wavy. The football team had fathers who’d served in Korea, grandfathers in WWII. A few had older brothers, younger uncles, or cousins who’d served in ‘Nam. The ones no one spoke of, or to. The dispersed ones. She thought the photograph ancient because he looked so young. So guiltless. So pre-Grenada. Head hits, concussive blasts, and one knee-shattering jump. He never wore his hair long again.
Her crowning glory was to be the purple climbing clematis, but something went awry in the potager garden. What was once such joyful possibility is a tangle of disproportions. The balance and symmetry I envisioned grew up wild children with ideas of their own. The Lemon Queen sunflowers once to wispy and whimsical have stalks thick as birch saplings and heads ready to flower a foot over mine. Having planted six, I believe I now have a sunflower woods. At their base, the delphiniums have bloomed twice despite the strangulation of the purple podded peas that the rabbit bit off at the stalks, leaving the tendrils to be dry and brown, still wrapped tightly. The cosmos and bee balm are exquisite, and the snapdragons are starting to get their blooms, and here comes the overreach of the butternut squash with tendrils like those of the Kraken. And who knew courgette plants could grow four feet tall?
But alas, that clematis has not grown into the potager’s greatest centerpiece.
I’m looking at my neighbor’s neat rows and thinking maybe I did it wrong. My thesis is feeling the same way. Her crowning glory was to be a strong protagonist, a deep setting, a hero’s journey. In the middle of things, it’s a grander mess than anything I’ve ever written. My professor provided line edits the way a horticulturist would critique my gardens. I’m just going to say it — writing hurts sometimes. Being creative and visionary feels fraudulent when the results fall far from expectations. It’s my pity party, and I’ll sit in my overgrown garden and cry if I want to. Except I can’t indulge in my bemoaning long.
I’ve got work to do. Courgettes to harvest, seeds to save, flowers to arrange in vases, and the most delicious golden globes of lemon cucumbers to eat. Maybe the crown was not the point. I have writing to submit 15,000 more words by August 10. First drafts and middles are meant to be messy. At the direction of both profs, my peers and I are charged with self-care this week. One shared an article: Why Self Compassion Trumps Self Esteem. Garden and novels are hard work. It does no good to compare ourselves to the finished works of others when ours are still in progress.
Mostly, I’m tired. Most of my son’s guests are canceling, including close friends. My heart hurts for him because many have been reluctant to say they can’t come. It triggered grief in me and guilt. My best friend was known as Aunt Kate to my kids. Wild unicorns wouldn’t have kept her from reaching out to him if she couldn’t be there. The guilt is for abandoning her kids, not keeping in touch with them, after all our wandering. Grief is such an unwelcomed guest, like smoke it permeates. It is never too late to reach out. Never too late to plan next year’s gardens with this year’s lessons in mind. Never too late to resist the paralysis of the writer’s inner critic.
Tomorrow I shall cut my hair. Better yet, I’ll make a hair appointment and mask up for the event. My own crowning glory will not be COVID-hair. I might even trim up the eyebrows that are transforming into caterpillars. Paint the toenails for the open-toe shoes. I’ll hop online in the morning with my fellow veteran spouses, and we’ll listen to one another and encourage resiliency. Later, I’ll go back out to Lady Lake. It’s cooled off this week after a blazing hot weekend. The water will be cold, but I’ll still get in and try to float again. Look for rocks again. Call for the loons. Reset. Then I’ll get back at it. Write.
Another good article to read is The 10 Types of Writers’ Block (and How to overcome Them). Each type calls for a different solution. The first is when you can’t come up with an idea. It happens with the challenges — the prompt fails to spark a story fire. One solution is to do writing exercises. The author gives these suggestions:
“Try imagining what it would be like if a major incident in your life had turned out way differently. Try writing some fanfic, just to use existing characters as “training wheels.” Try writing a scene where someone dies and someone else falls in love, even if it doesn’t turn into a story. Think of something or someone that pisses you off, and write a totally mean satire or character assassination. (You’ll revise it later, so don’t worry about writing something libelous at this stage.)” Charlie Jane Anders
I’d add to that: write the opposite of your first idea. Give your character a quirk. Reset the story someplace exotic, in the loo, or underground. Add a secondary character who is mean, or funny, or clueless. Add a sensory detail like something prickly, a whining sound, the taste of saffron. Collect details and turn them into story ideas or props. If all else fails, add a unicorn. Humor me.
July 30, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that uses the phrase “her crowning glory.” (Thanks to Anne Goodwin for the prompt idea.) It can be in the traditional sense of a woman’s hair or applied to any idea of a best attribute. What happens if you play with the meaning or gender? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by August 4, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Submissions are now closed. See our latest challenge to enter.
Hiding Her Crown by Charli Mills
When Thomas fell down the main shaft and died, the mining company told his widow to send one of the boys or leave the company house. Jack was ten and frail from illness. Robbie was eight, and Brad six. Lizzie was fourteen and fit. She sheared her crowning glory of long red curls. No one likes a ginger, Mrs. Lewis next door would say, her mouth pinched perpetually. Wearing her father’s clothes tied and tucked into her brother’s boots Lizzie settled the miner’s helmet on her bald head. No one ever paid the poor Irish kids much mind, anyhow.
When I was a kid, maybe eight or nine, I remember plucking reed-like horsetail plants and dismembering each section. I was left with an imaginary pack of green cigarettes. I never lit them on fire, but I did “smoke” them. Gratefully, pretend smoking never led to an actual habit (unless you count the marshmallows I like to light on fire to eat their crunchy, gooey, charred remains). I suppose I was fascinated by the way the plant came apart like a natural erector set and by the positions smokers took when lit up. I never liked the actual smoke my aunts blew my way, not wanting to foul their air with the exhalations, but I did notice how they seemed to take a different body stance during the act. That smoker’s poise was my intent with imitation.
I also didn’t know that when I grew up, I’d be hunting for wild horsetail to make a bone-strengthening brew as a mid-menopausal woman. I’m yet a teeny-bopper in crone years, but I understand that the transitions my body is experiencing require a different medicine cabinet than the mothering years. No longer do I need raspberry leaf or yarrow. I’m incrementally adding more Motherwort to my daily intake, and I can’t seem to get enough nourishing nettles these days. No longer do I believe cigarettes make women look cool. I’m okay with looking like an oddball at any age, wearing expandable waistbands, and returning to the flannel shirts of my youth.
For my son’s wedding, though, I’m being aiming for classy. I bought three new pairs of sandals — a fancy copper-toned heel, strappy white flats, and open-toed black leather wedges. We have rehearsal dinner, the wedding and reception, and time to visit. My excuse for watering in these heels is that I want to make sure they fit properly, that I can walk in them safely, and, well, I feel extra pretty in my PJs and flannel overshirt with heels on. I don’t need a cigarette, real or fake, between my fingers to strike a cool pose with my garden hose. Despite the heels’ few inches of extra height, my MOG gown is about 8-inches too long. My necklace is two inches too short. And I’m running out of time to order any online fixes.
Don’t get me started on my hair. It’s starting to escape clips and binders, emerging a wild thing. It’s curling in weird ways, and I’m starting to think I should shave it all off. However, my future DIL arranged for a hairdresser for the mothers and wedding party. Technically, I’m still in lockdown per Michigan orders until August 11. They get married on August 15. I’m also in quarantine, waiting to hear back on the COVID test the Hub had to take after being exposed. I’m lost in limbo with a shaggy, uncooperative mop with no access to beauty parlor visits.
Nature is wide open, however, and I go to places where I can avoid people, pick rocks, and tie a scarf around my roaming hair.
Last week I returned to my favorite McLeans beach and encountered seven loons, one a month-old chick. They sat at the edge of gentle waves and shoved off the rocks into the water as soon as I started fumbling in my daypack for my phone. Later, one loon returned to the beach and I swam-crawled (my way of crabbing among the rocks to stay cool in the water and not get rolled over by the waves) for a closer examination. He either found me not-threatening (I doubt I look threatening to anyone when swim-crawling) or thought I looked loony enough to be close kin. He preened his feathers and sunbathed until other beachgoers emerged from the wooded trail, and he was out of there, zipping into the water in such a way that he shoved off from the rocks with back legs not built for waddling but for swiftly swimming.
Among the rocks, I also picked up litter. Some old, like sea glass, some new, like plastic. Evelyn Ravindran, Natural Resources Director for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC), says, “This is what it means to be human. You have to take care of the world you live in. You have a responsibility to do that.” It’s not enough to trample across beauty. We need to slow down, appreciate it, and truly experience its wonder. It’s important that we have wild spaces where all the nations can be. I mean, the plant and animal nations. We need to protect nature around us.
While we’ve been in a pandemic, the indigenous tribes of America have not slowed down in their protection of the natural world. The Water Walkers of KBIC have been fortifying their medicine cabinets with the plant nation and upholding their first treaty as stewards. They are preparing for their annual 17-mile walk around the bay to honor Nibi — water. I’ve been singing to Nibi as I was taught and hope to join the Water Walkers once again on their three-day walk across all the ceded territories of the Keweenaw.
My wise Water Walker mentor, Kathleen Smith, says, “What matters is that we advocate and give a voice to the things that cannot speak.” That fits in with what we do as writers. We explore ideas, culture, relationships, and the recesses of our own hearts and minds. We seek our voices, as well as give voice to the voiceless. Creative writing does much to instill empathy in both readers and writers.
This video is one example of how people all around the world are working to protect nature. What is happening in your part of the world, in your neighborhood? The opening song is the one I learned to sing to Nibi.
Submissions closed. Find our most current weekly Flash Fiction Challenge to enter.
July 23, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story to show what it is to protect nature around us. It can be set in any era or told in any genre. You can fictionalize a true story or completely make it up. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by July 28, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
To Protect and to Serve by Charli Mills
Reba pointed her kayak east and sprinkled a pinch of asemaa into the breeze when the sun’s first light touched the water. Her grandson had grown the tobacco last summer that she dried over winter to fill her pouch. It became an offering to the spirits, a promise. She paddled to shore, singing to Nibi her gratitude and respect. Driving to work at the tribe’s fish hatchery, Reba passed the community gardens and the inlet where rice grew on the water – manoomin. Everywhere she looked, she saw the First Treaty upheld – to protect and to serve the precious gifts.
There’s a soul-quenching silence that greets me in the forest at the edge of Lake Superior. Once I adjust, I start to hear the chirps of birds flitting from birch to pine, the roll of the surf from the pebble beach below the ridge, the muffled padding of my footsteps. At that moment — I realize the silence is not a lack of sound but rather a wealth of calm. Walking the trail, I feel at peace. I find a path that veers off the main walking trail and climb to the top of the ridge of eon’s worth of blown and packed sand. Surveying Lady Lake Superior below, I see her waves are fully agitated and yet the sky stretches cloudless. It’s a hot summer day for the Keweenaw and I’ve come to ride its rollercoaster.
Life of late has provided its own thrill ride. The news cycle has become as nauseating as the spinning teacups I remember from the carnivals that often followed the rodeo circuit. Even trying to keep up on important topics leaves me up and down, around and around. Somebody get me off this carousel. I feel like the grumpy old-timer who wants to find a sturdy bench in the shade and eat cotton candy in peace. Pandemic times might be a wild ride from the norm, but I’m seeking a different escape from it all. Without a kayak, I’m here to ride the waves.
From the ridge, I consider my descent. I can plunge down the thick steps of sand, leaving my own bowls of footprints, or I can follow the ridge to a lower slope. Each year, the lake gnaws away her shoreline in fits and furries like a teething monster, devouring birch and scattering their bones. Previous trees get sucked out into the lake to bob until washed ashore in pieces as driftwood. This cycle changes the landscape, buries or removes trails, and dares me to find a new path. I feel like I’m sneaking off to a hidden amusement park, seeking secret passage. Not far away, the waves roar.
I choose the bold sandy route, the direct path. Sand gives way to encroaching pebbles that range in size from stepping stones to corn kernels. Some are flat and worn but most are rounded or oval-shaped, smooth, and dull unless wet. Water enlivens the mineral make-up, a dragon’s hoard of variety — basalts with gas bubbles, basalt with veins of quartz, basalt omars, quartzite, calcite, granite, plagioclase (pink and white), hornblende, copper, pyrite, mica, chalcedony, chert, prehnite, sandstone, and the always sought-after agates. You can find a variety of mixes like creativity without end.
It’s been a hot summer, unusual for the Keweenaw and I want the relief of Superior’s cold water. She has a secret, though. Her waters are pleasant on a wave-crashing day because sun-warmed surface water rolls to shore. I step into the first wave I reach and feel a luxuriant warmth. Rarely do I get to say that the lake is perfect in temperature. It is a rare day and no one is here to share the wonder of this natural phenomenon. I scan the horizon and see the big thrill-seekers are further down the shore, tucked safely near the entrance to the canal. One is kite surfing and others riding sail-boards.
And it wasn’t just the people who showed up. I watch as loons follow the cresting waves northeast only to fly past again to catch the rollers and ride.
Those who know how to ride the Keweenaw rollercoaster go as far as they can out against the waves and then turn around and ride them in. How amazing that must be! I’m less daring, willing to wade out waist-deep and let the water crash into me. Overheard a seagull casts a shadow, but I can’t hear its raucous cry, so loud is the surf.
Another shadow arrives, and I turn to see my friend Cynthia coming down the beach, lit up with a smile to be in nature’s playground. We were starting to do things together as “double bubbles” until Covid-19 officially arrived at Copper Country where an influx of escaping tourists met with mask aversion of locals. Now we keep our distance. Even though we’re outside, recent exposure makes it too risky to get close enough to hear one another over the waves.
We kept physically distant but shared the ride without ever talking. We are present.
Watching for riptides (which can be strong about 30 to 40 yards out), I find a good place to stand against the waves. Is it my imagination, or are they growing? One massive wave strikes me and I go down like the Edmonds Fitzgerald. Well, not exactly. I don’t break in two. Instead, I land firmly on my behind, then the next wave hits me in the chest and drives me back and at an angle to the shore. I catch sight of Cynthia and she’s in the water, too. Lady Lake has us both, dragging us across the pebbles to about three-feet off the shore. We are positioned to ride.
For the next two hours, we ride the Keweenaw Rollercoaster. Waves pull out into the next one and if they meet at the right spot, the water empties all around us. We watch as incoming walls of water rise eight to ten feet high, looking to swallow us whole but then cresting and diminishing, smacking us playfully in the belly, chest, or face. When the water rises the sun shines through like light inside a priceless jewel. Each facet reveals a mirror to the bottom of the lake, explaining why the loons repeatedly hunt the coast like fishing surfers. Each loon sighting makes me think there’s a portal to waters in Vermont. Each wave that hits causes us to laugh. We roll and reset, howl and squeal.
I understand why people want to escape Covid woes at amusement parks. We all could use a break and two hours of deep tummy laughing. Sure, there’s laughing yoga, but sometimes we need a ride to sweep us away. In Japan, you can ride the rollercoaster with a mask, but you have to “scream inside your heart.” What restraint! To me, the point of the ride, waves or coasters, is to let go. I don’t think I can sit in these waves, roll with the water or watch the loons nearby without expressing delight. Without giving up my tension to the experience. Without screaming out loud.
Yet, it is an intriguing idea, one we will explore. For now, I’ll squeal a little while longer, riding the Keweenaw rollercoaster.
July 16, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that expresses the phrase, “scream inside your heart.” Who is involved and why is the scream contained? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by July 21, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Submissions are now closed. See our latest challenge to enter.
Nap Time by Charli Mills
Two nurses checked Esther’s vitals when the twitching began. Every nap, the 99-year-old woman slept fitfully in her lift-chair.
Esther leaned back, listening to the clicks before she felt her body plummeted then jerked left and then right, up again, down again, rattling over a series of swells before coming to a jolting stop.
“Esther must be having puppy dreams is all.” The other nurse nodded.
Locked inside her head and sleep, Esther screamed in her heart, a carefree teenager once again at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk in 1924. When the Big Dipper ended, she woke up and grinned.
A sure way to loosen the black earth embedded beneath my fingernails is to go bob in Lake Superior. The icy cold water disperses warm pockets, electrifying the experience between soothing and shocking. My new favorite beach is off-limits with a big sign saying so. I’m not trespassing though; I’m a guest of a friend of a friend who owns property along a gated road of an undeveloped development. It’s not something we can do regularly. We don’t want to be obnoxious and ask to borrow the beach again, week after week, but it soothes my soul, cools my heels, and cleans my grubby fingernails.
While I was weeding yesterday, Monreal Dorb entered the July 2 Flash Fiction Challenge 574 times. He had all manner of websites to direct me to, but none were written in 99-words. I had to wade through pages and pages of his entries to find any accidental spam in the folder. We once had a literary spammer who spammed a Rodeo contest with a bizarre 99-word story about bitcoin, knock-off purses, and other suspicious topics. We blocked his website but included his amusing story in the roundup. We later questioned, who he was. I’m nostalgically wondering is Monreal Dorb is Nanjo Castille. Spammers have lives too, albeit strange and virtually criminal. How does one become a spammer?
It was an odd thought to ponder as I ripped up purselane. Spam, like the edible weed, sends tendril everywhere in hopes of taking hold and taking over. Soon, wildlife distracted me. A spider exited my blooming lavender in a huff, inspecting my activity. She saw me on my knees, pulling up groundcover, probably sending vibrations throughout the garden village at the soil level. That spider marched over on eight tall legs, climb my poppy, and looked me in the eye. I told her not to worry, that I had bought out the half-priced annuals at the grocers on Quincy Hill. Soon, she’d have a different cover, like new carpeting. Next, the toad revealed himself ever so quietly. I tried to convince him to go to the potato patch but he had none of my attempts to hold him. The toad wanted no kisses. He hung out, though.
One of my professors confessed that when she’s writing on deadline her house is immaculate and she hates housework. That sparked conversation about writing rhythms and where creativity comes from. For me, creativity permeates the air, the soil, the water. Like the truth, it’s out there. But my plot is upstairs, dissected, and tacked to my W-storyboard. The full write-up is pinned to a corkboard along with the character arc, subplots, and timeline that includes birthdates and anniversaries of my characters. The more I write into the book, the more I crave to be outside. I need to wash my nails and stare a spider in the eyes. Somehow, I need to fill up as I put out.
Then there is the craft side of the writing issue. The plot requires mastery of cause and effect. When life happens to your character, that’s plot. What happens though, stirs your character’s deeply buried desire and exposes their misbelief. This is the character arc reacting to plot, and one is internal tension the other external action. This creates a cause-and-effect trajectory that moves your novel forward (it can move your short story or memoir, too). To really get at the heart of your character’s current situation, you have to understand their past. It helps you focus on what is happening internally with your character because you want your readers to connect. And we do so through emotion. We have to write with feeling.
Emotions also play out in the classroom. Along with my thesis, I’m studying to teach creative writing. Our textbook this term is all about emotional intelligence in the classroom (EQ). It didn’t take long for me to figure out that my professor for this course is my favorite so far. He models what he is teaching, responding to tough discussions with great empathy to turn them into teaching moments for all of us. I’m in awe of his ability and, yes, I’m taking notes — or, as he says, “Fill the toolbox.” He prompts us to consider how we will respond, saying, “Good intentions do not make a good professor. Good actions make a good professor.” Then, it hit me — I’m going to be a professor! I think that realization made my knees weaker than any thoughts about being a writer.
I wonder what makes Monreal Dorb’s knees weak? Yes, I’ve circled back to our barndoor spammer. Before we answer that thought, I want to draw your attention to something exciting that’s happening right now — the Buxton Festival Fringe in the UK is going on virtually. Check out all the online events and performances. Among them is Anne Goodwin’s Becoming Someone event and Carrot Ranch’s Art of the 99-word Story. If you want an extra writing opportunity, you can enter the International Flash Fiction Challenge. Anne and I will select stories to read live (by us or the authors) on July 17 at 5 pm UK time (12 pm EST). Recently, Anne, Norah, and I met up on Zoom to record a reading and discussion. D. Avery will be playing it in the future at the Saddle Up Saloon (if she can convince Kid and Pal).
In the meantime, pull weeds, plant annuals among your perennials, and frequently jump in a lake to clean your nails and you’ll be all set to follow the creativity to your writing.
July 9, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes that answers the question, who is Monreal Dorb. You can imagine the life of this fictitious person in any era or circumstance. Is there cause and effect at play? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by July 14, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Nothing more to see here, Monreal Dorb. Bot off!
A Senior Citizen Will Survive by Charli Mills
Monreal Dorb teased her hair into a beehive, saturating her silver locks with hairspray. She dabbed her lips hot pink and stepped out into the blazing Arizona sunshine in wide-width flip-flops. Her neighbors sweltered in the shade, waving. Monreal – Rea to her friends, and she had many – mounted her scooter and set off for the office at the head of the gated mobile home park. There, she’d wipe down her desk after Russian Peggy’s shift of credit card hacking, don a glam mask, and start spamming. She’d survive covid-economics on spam just like her mother did during the Depression.
A bee bobs over my stack of education — a Paperwhite Kindle in a tattered green case; a copy of Story Genius by Lisa Cron as worn as old summer flip-flops; a cheap plastic pencil box filled with colorful gel pens and peony-pink sticky notes; a folder full of plots and timeline notes. Despite the bounty contained there, the bee moves on to inspect the unfurling of French marigolds. The flowers are a deep cabernet, lined in dark gold. I grew them from seed and smile that the bee acknowledges my efforts to garden.
Will my thesis, one day, know such regard?
As artists, we require the interaction of readers, viewers, listeners the same way my courgettes requires the company of bumblebees. Otherwise, we labor without fruit. A writer writes, but there must be some sort of regard of the product. Even a private diary or feelings journal offers insights when reread. At the very least, reading our own output establishes literary art. We are the first to be transfixed or transformed by it.
Handing over our work to the gaze of unknown worker bees feels like exposure. We keep our blossoms close while we write, shading future fruit from direct sunlight with leaves broad as palms as if to say, hands-off. Yet, we must invite the bees in closely, open up tender petals of the page and allow for probing investigation. What does the reader see, we wonder, hoping they don’t see the parts we thought protected. But we put it all out there — our thoughts and feelings, our experiences and imaginings, our deliberations and unconscious biases — and call it fiction.
We call it many things, our literary art, our edible blossoms, our hopes of fruit and best sellers. We call it memoir or personal essay or environmental writing. We call it fantasy or romance or young adult. We call it prose or poetry. In the end, creative writing is fiction the way courgettes are zucchinis. Different names for something beautiful we grow to be consumed. The moment we push the seed into the soil is the same moment we press the keys. We start a story.
Some might argue the semantics or bristle at calling their output fiction. Am I writing fiction right now? Yes, I am. That doesn’t mean I’m deceiving you or making up stories, but I am reaching down into my heart with content from my head to place my philosophizing into a structure that connects with you. It doesn’t get more authentic than this. To me, I’m giving shape to my truth, hoping to link to yours. Wallace Stegner says we can’t invent without experience. Fiction is rooted in every essence of our lives, no matter what name we give it.
Stegner explains the importance of filling our containers the way we amend the soil of our gardens:
“What I meant was that experience sought for the sake of writing about it may produce reporting, or travel books, but it is not likely to produce literature. And experience is of many kinds, some of them so subtle and quiet it takes a good Geiger counter to detect them.
The way to gain experience is to live, but that does not mean one must go slumming for the exotic or outrageous or adventurous or sordid or, even, unusual. Any experience, looked at steadily, is likely to be strange enough for fiction or poetry.
By the same token, the individual who has lived deeply and widely—and I mean lived, not gone slumming or adventuring for literary purposes—has more to write about, and perhaps a better base for mature wisdom, than someone less privileged.
And yet, I don’t know. What did Thoreau know? He lived deeply in Walden, deeply in books, deeply in his mind. By occupation he was nothing spectacular, part-time surveyor and handyman.
The subject of fiction is not just what one did yesterday. It may borrow from the experience of others than the author.”
Stegner, Wallace. On Teaching and Writing Fiction (pp. 41-42). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Whether we write such experiences in our diaries or in stories constructed of craft elements, we dig first within. No wonder we can feel so exposed to the bees even though our relationships benefit what we write. Bees and readers want honey. We want to harvest what we planted.
So, it is a hot one. As I try to garden and write, summer arrives relentlessly. I’m missing Vermont, the summer lands of Stegner and Slaytons. What drew my mentor from the West, also draws me — roots. We are a restless sort, Westerners. I am what Stegner describes as the displaced person, “Acquainted with many places, he is rooted in none.” Thus my attraction to a region of placed people, where family has lived for many generations. It is hallowed ground and a sanctuary to someone like me who can appreciate transplanting among the deep roots, even for a brief time each year.
I think writers are a mixture of placed and displaced people. Even rooted, we don’t always feel we belong. Unrooted, and we seek community. We explore externally and then write internally. Stegner calls us to learn to be quiet where we don’t own our writing but belong to it. He was talking about land and rootlessness, but I see it as a driver of all art. The artist doesn’t own the seed, nor does the bee own the blossom, but together they belong to the harvest.
Take a long drink of water this week and share what comes up from the well.
July 2, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes the word blossom. You can use the word as a noun or a verb, or even as a name. How does it fit into your story? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by July 7, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Submissions closed. Find our most current weekly Flash Fiction Challenge to enter.
Doing Right by Charli Mills
“What’s wrong?” Cate snapped open the canvas covering the freight-wagon. Three pale faces from within stared back in wide-eyed silence.
“Zeb broke my blossom.” Abigail, the youngest, wailed.
“Not-uh. Just made a pile of petals, teachin’ Joseph numbers like Ma did.” Zeb, the eldest, scowled. Joseph hid his face on his older brother’s shoulder.
Cate bit the stem of her pipe. She was a muleskinner not a childminder. With their parents buried three days back, none of the other families stepped up in charity. So, Cate found another blossom, wiped the tears, soothed the fear, and resumed her mules.
For one day, I held space for a loon chick. Not at a distance, but so close that I could gently blow her downy feathers like making a wish to black dandelion seeds. Her tiny body could fit in my cupped hands while her father’s penguin-like body could race across water with wings firm as a bodybuilder’s biceps. For one day, I stepped through a rent in nature and swam with a baby loon.
My second home in Vermont, my newly adopted state of steep rolling hills and backroads that wind through valleys and across clear rocky creeks, welcomes loons. History hides in abandoned stone fences and old cemeteries. Soldiers once fought in New World wars and later marched south for the Grand Army of the Republic. Vermonters think their own minds, though. At least one marched south to fight on the side of the Confederacy.
The place had me at loon lakes and Green Mountains, dirt roads and backwater bars, Cabot cheese, and Citizen Cider, but the sweetest slice of life served in Vermont comes with a side of words. Vermonters read. Literary art still matters, and I did not meet people who said, “I’m busy.” I met folks who swam in the lake after work and went home to read books. At every general store, locals swapped books. This came as a delightful surprise.
Some Day is now Next Time.
Next Time Carrot Ranch has a Nature Writing Refuge on Greenwood Lake in Vermont, I’ll include literary events. The libraries promoted Wrangling Words and offered a table at the farmers market. D. Avery packed the Galaxy Bookstore for a reading, and we joined local musicians at open mic night at the Whammy Bar. We also had several private readings, impromptu readings, and even sold a book or two on the fly.
Last night, D. and I rolled into Hancock, Michigan, World Headquarters of Carrot Ranch. We left Vermont two days earlier and crossed Quebec and Ontario in her truck. Once in Michigan on the Upper Peninsula, we drove and drove. D. began to doubt there was civilization. But we arrived, and today she got hooked on picking rocks and got to see the Continental Fire Company. Tomorrow we read from the History Meets Literary Art collection at Fort Wilkins where Fannie Hooe once went missing.
Sitting by the campfire over Greenwood lake, reading stories with Sue Sleggs, Ann Edall-Robson and JulesPaige remains a shining star of the whole trip. Sharing kayak time and waterfalls with them will shape all our writing to come as such experiences do. That is the long-burning fuel of a nature writing retreat.
What stays with me most is the One Day. For one day, I swam with a baby loon.
A nesting pair of loons live and breed on Greenwood Lake. Throughout the Nature Writing Refuge, we heard the calls and hoots of loons and frequently saw the big waterbirds on the lake. We even got to kayak up to the boundary of the nesting loons in Turtle Cove where author Sean Prentiss lives with his family. Yet, D. noticed odd loon behavior.
Every day, a trio of loons landed on the lake and circled like synchronized swimmers. The male of the nesting pair often joined in, and the routine looked cooperative, not aggressive. We thought Big Daddy might be swinging on the side. When the Loon Day Survey arrived, D. was going to observe the nest with its overdue egg, and I was going to report on any loon hook-ups. In kayaks, we split up and listened for the calls. When the trio arrived, Big Daddy showed up. And oddly enough, so did Mama.
Meanwhile, D. and another kayaker approached the abandoned nest, finding what was likely an infertile egg. To their surprise, a bobbing black puff appeared on the water — a newly hatched loon chick! But no adults in sight. While we were merely citizen scientists for the survey, we knew it highly strange for loon parents to leave a chick. I’ve found an article that might explain the behavior at The Loon Project. Chicks need more than hiding. They need warmth, food, and nurturing through constant vocalizations. This baby was shivering and stabbing her tiny beak at D.’s kayak straps.
Soon, the Prentiss family joined us on the water as we all tried to decide the best course of action, mystified by the absent parents. We got the baby back on the nest, but it wouldn’t stay, insisting on floating next to Mama D. We discussed calling the Vermont Loon Biologist, knowing it was Loon Day and he was likely out of cell service. We looked up the number for loon wildlife rescue, and it was the same number. We called, left a message, and waited.
During six hours — that’s how long the parents swam with the intruders — we caught a minnow, fed a baby chick, and D. gave her belly-time when she insisted on seeking a warm spot on her new human to rest. Finally, we decided the chick was abandoned, and we would keep her safe until we could hand her over for rescue. That’s when I got to swim and be eye-to-eye with a baby loon. Eventually, the parents returned, and we reunited the chick with them.
However, the territorial take-over turned violent while the baby slept at the edge of the nest. The loons in this video are not the ones we observed, but we did witness this level of violence. Who knew loons could punch? We watched one loon hold another under the water.
Citizen Science Checklist
July 20, 2019 and a kayak slips into the water carrying gear poised to document activity for the Vermont Loon Survey. 8:11 a.m. The lake spreads flat beneath a sun rising to Vermont hot. Composition notebook, turquoise pen and a homemade cider donut ride in a Ziplock bag. Coffee in a travel mug slops dark brew. Binoculars and Nikon D80 with telephoto lens hang at the ready from straps. A life-vest within reach concludes the checklist required to count loons on Greenwood Lake for an hour. Ready and backed into the shadows of the eastside three loons glide by.
Below camp, three loons circle. Water ripples like lines of an inked Celtic knot. The loons, black and white like the written word extend long black beaks forward poised to write on water. Circling slender dragon-head quills. If one periscopes red loon eyes to scan beneath the surface, the other two follow. What do they see? Fish for dinner or foe to challenge? They all submerge in unison. Thirty seconds later they bob to the surface and write their saga in circles. Territorial posturing distracts the nesting pair and the Celtic knot erases the idea of mating for life.
How It Happened
Nothing more than a puffball of black down, the newly hatched loon enters the water without parents. Hearing the swish of a kayaker who is examining the abandoned nest during loon survey, the hatchling follows. The volunteer nudges her back to the nest and departs to find the parents. When the volunteers converge without loon parents, the hatchling boldly swims among the kayaks oblivious to the lurking dangers below and above ready to make a meal of her. She tires, hungrily pecking her beak at kayak straps. That’s how it happened – a baby loon spent a day among humans.
While calls go out to the state loon biologist, I stay objective, photographing the puff of black feathers that is the loon chick. We understand she’s doomed without the care of her adults, and in those long stretches of waiting for direction, I feel my own human instinct to nurture intensify. I watch as the tired chick is placed in the safety of a kayak-well. I watch as she struggles to clamber out, seeking the warmth of the kayaker. I watch the inadvertent bonding. I stay objective until it is my turn to feed, swim and warm the chick.
I once swam with a loon chick. Five hours old and already diving. She hears me laugh and paddles tiny webbed feet to me, searching for a wing. It’s Vermont hot, and I sizzle under the sun. I create a makeshift wing from my bandana to protect her. She snuggles to my chest, peeping softly as she sleeps. My heart swells for this tiny wonder, thumping in awe to witness her existence, this ephemeral dandelion wish. From volunteer citizen scientist to impromptu parent in half a day, I know nature’s course wins in the end. My sunburn outlives her.
July 25, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes the phrase “for one day.” The words single out a special occurrence. What is the emotion and vibe, where does it take place and why? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by July 30, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Fire and False Hope (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
For one day, the crew held back the advancing fire. Danni dropped onto her sleeping bag, boots still on her feet, proud that she had shoveled in a way archeologists seldom do. They worked hard and deterred the fire with their break. Sometime during the night, the wind kicked up, and a chill woke Danni. Stretching, she groggily left the tent to refill her water bottle. The skyline glowed with orange flames, trees exploded, shooting embers the wind carried across the break. For one day, they saved their community from burning in hell. Now it was time to evacuate.