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April 19: Flash Fiction Challenge

I’m riding high in the dentist’s chair. This is not where I expected to be after fighting a cold-turned-sinus-infection since January. Two weeks ago, facial nerve pain drove me to find something stronger than my arsenal of herbs. That’s how I met Dr. Bob, local dentist.

Now, I’m sucking down nitrous oxide, preparing for the crack and pull of a tooth the dentist can’t save. If the sequence of age for a woman is maiden, mother, crone, I must be working on my crone’s smile now. Yet, I don’t want to be thinking about what Dr. Bob is setting up to do. As beautiful as the falling snow can be, neither do I want to be thinking about what’s falling outside the office window.

Instead, I turn my thoughts to the characters of Rock Creek. I wonder which one of them I’m going to torture with a toothache. Cobb came to mind first, maybe because I wanted to sit in this chair with my toughest character. I imagine that his wife, Mary, would try folk remedies first to ease the agony of tooth pain. But once such remedies fail, people seek the torture of extraction in desperation.

George Washington felt such desperation. History records that he had one tooth a year pulled from the time he was 22 until he had none left to pull. As children in the US, we learn early on in school that our first president wore wooden teeth. And yet this is false. Washington wore dentures of human teeth. I suppose those who extracted teeth had a side gig for creating dental wear.

Cobb would likely liquor up before letting someone yank his troublesome tooth. I’m lucky to be sitting in a near trance, daydreaming about my characters as my own procedure progresses. I wonder how much corn whiskey it would take to equal novocaine shots and laughing gas. I’m not going to test any theories. I also wonder who would pull the tooth? Likely a blacksmith who had pliers.

My thoughts drift to gentler musings, and I realize how ready I am to return to my forest trail at McLain State Park. I’m not even craving the rock-hunting, just the healing vibes of the forest. I can picture the trail as it winds through the pine trees on a ridge overlooking Lake Superior. Its scent hangs sharply in the air I imagine as warmed by afternoon sun.

Arms outstretched, feet rooted above roots, ground solid, air clean and the roar of waves crash in the distance. Now, stepping forward not in a sprint but a relaxed walk. This is Shinrin Yoku — forest bathing. First developed in Japan during the 1980s, JulesPaige introduced it to Carrot Ranch in a flash fiction. It’s healing, restorative and rejuvenating. No wonder I recline and bathe in my imagined forest.

An interesting purpose of Shinrin Yoku is

“To transform our cultural relationship to forests through fostering deeper relationships and positive experiences with forested areas.”

Two years ago, I wrote an article about the push to create a wilderness area out of a mountain range in North Idaho. The idea is that we need wild spaces, even those that might be difficult to access. The leader of the project told me that it’s enough to know wild spaces still exist.

This also makes me think of Aldo Leopold, and his essay from A Sand County Almanac called, “Land Ethic.” He argues for humans to see the land as something more than a commodity; to see it as a community to which we all belong.  He sees that we are not separate from the environment. Along with the idea of transforming our relationships to forests, or preserving wild spaces, so they exist, he acknowledges that we won’t succeed. But it remains important that we try. Leopold writes:

“We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.”

From this single dentist’s chair, I’m connected to the past and future, to the Lake Superior pines not yet free of snow, to the wilderness I’ve seen and not seen, to forests on distant shores. For a time of healing, I’m going to imagine forest bathing.

April 19, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about forest bathing. You can use the Japanese term, Shinrin Yoku, or you can make up your own ideas about the phrase. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by April 24, 2018. 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 your story published in the weekly collection, please use this form. If you want to interact with other writers, do so in the comments (yes, that means sharing your story TWICE — once for interaction and once for publication). Rules are here.

***

Free Among the Trees by Charli Mills

Gabriella tapped the last spigot. She caught the trickle of clear sap in a wooden bucket. Daughter of a French trader and an Ottawan mother, she belonged to no one. She kept to the forests outside the ports and mining towns, trading maple syrup with the Black Robes at L’Anse. The forest kept her company, bathed her in its healing embrace. The Black Robes enticed she could become a neophyte, and claimed gospels in her native tongue. They didn’t know she could read her father’s books and already chose her classic path – she was happy as a forest nymph.

April 12: Flash Fiction Challenge

Sloppy snow pools like white slush and I realize this so-called return to winter barks but doesn’t bite. It can’t hide the push of life from the exposed patches of earth. In fact, the heavy moisture feeds the burgeoning life. Yellow-green shoots of new grass blades poke up like stubble from the grit the city snowplows left behind on curbside lawns. Most yards still house sagging snow drifts, pocked and dirty. At least the spring snow adds a dash of freshness.

This week, I have two new friends — one a neighbor and the other a long-lost cousin.

I’ll call my neighbor Cranky as long as you realize that’s not her disposition. Cranky is delightful. She’s an antique Singer Sewing Machine shop owner and seamstress who specializes in the same era for which I write historical fiction. How is that for neighborhood serendipity? We met right before winter when a stray cat turned up at her house. She stopped by to see if the cat belonged to us. Then, last week she stopped by to see if I’d go walking with her.

It’s thrilling to get asked to walk with a neighbor. Except for the walking part! Since winter closed off the rock beaches to me, I’ve not walked much or far. My glutes and calves are feeling the burn from the hilly roads we live on, but it feels good to get outside and observe spring. We spotted two red robins on our walk last night and located the neighborhood murder of crows. We even saw two nuthatches and heard a few unidentified birds.

Along one house where the southern exposure to sun melted the snow, we marveled over the spears of daffodils. We plan to walk three days a week and even talked about field trips. Cranky is a real birder, meaning she has expertise in identifying birds whereas I have lots of curiosity. As you can imagine, we have much to discuss about 1860 as we walk.

My second friend found me through Ancestry. We connected when he sent a message regarding errors in my tree. It’s a working tree, thus I appreciate any corrections from others. Then he asked about a lost cousin who had red hair and disappeared when she was seven. I realized he was asking about me. It’s stunning that we have found each other all these decades later. I feel more like I’ve found a long-lost brother. Already, he knows me too well which has made me laugh. He’s got a great sense of humor and a big heart. He’s creative and witty and I’m so pleased to get to know him again.

With ongoing VA appointments, I’m feeling batty this week. How we can be back to square one with the Hub’s knee is mind-boggling, but here we are asking for yet another orthopedic referral. His primary care doctor is lighting fires, but the system is practiced at snuffing them out. While we don’t have complete answers to the memory tests, we did conclude the Hub has an extraordinary memory. It’s his focus and attention that is suffering. With the onset, we are not ruling out traumatic brain injury. At least we have some validation that there is indeed something screwy with his brain.

Considering the ignorance of the military 30 years back, the way Rangers train is similar to American football players. Tough blows made the young man. We are learning more about TBI as these men age.  The Hub’s unit never had medical physicals after combat. Instead, they deployed to another hot spot. Today, or at least beginning with the Iraq War, soldiers are examined, and they deploy with psychiatric units. Let me tell you, that makes a difference. Hopefully, the Hub will get what he needs for a better quality of life.

With all these scattered thoughts beneath sloppy white stuff, I have one more to add — white-nose syndrome. This deadly disease impacts bats and often they become unseasonably active and die in winter instead of hibernating. In Iron Mountain, where we frequently travel to go to the VA hospital, scientists study the bats at Bat Mine, which is considered one of the most significant hibernating and breeding concentrations in the world. They begin to emerge in late April.

Last fall, 47 North Belly Dance Troupe, dedicated a dance to the bats. Before the dance began, they played this creative video as a public service announcement. It includes several of the dancers, and my SIL lends his voice to the narration. The second video shows part of the bat dance.

As we move through life, we become aware of those around us — neighbors, environment, family. Awareness opens us up to curiosity and possibility. The more we learn, the more we grow. We are all part of the web of life, a fitting idea as we connect through the playful activity of literary art in constrained form. Each week, I appreciate how diverse the individual stories are, and how they express a deeper meaning in a collection.

Yes, we are going to get batty this week.

April 12, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a bat. You can use an association to the winged, cave-dwelling critter, or you can explore the word for other meanings. Bonus points for including a bat cave. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by April 17, 2018. 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 your story published in the weekly collection, please use this form. If you want to interact with other writers, do so in the comments (yes, that means sharing your story TWICE — once for interaction and once for publication). Rules are here.

Lullaby of Bats (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills

Logs of cottonwood crackled and threw flames toward the night-sky. Most of the travelers had left the bonfire to bed down beneath their wagons. The baby Sarah heard crying earlier had stopped. Night insects chirped, and somewhere near the wagons a horse stomped. Night sounds of camp. Sarah relaxed on a log stool while Cobb played a slow fiddle tune. Back and forth he rubbed the bow. Bats darted in and out of the visible light, bobbing to the gentle lullaby with wings spread. Sarah sighed, looked toward the stars and watched the last of the evening’s dancers fly.

April 5: Flash Fiction

Spring in the Keweenaw, I’m discovering, is like having a mood disorder. Blizzards, squalls, and gray skies make me feel lethargic. My fingers plod to tap keys. My shoulders hunker, and my eyelids droop. I realize it’s not me; it’s the cloud cover.

By afternoon, Lady Lake parts the snow clouds like she’s our local Moses, and I can see blue so deep it must be heaven’s direct gaze. A choir of angels hums in my ears. My shoulders straighten. My fingers quicken their pace, and I feel wide awake. I take another swig of water and feel energized enough to think of rocks on the beach. So close!

We’re headed to the VA hospital in Iron Mountain, a five-hour roundtrip in good weather. It’s the first no-snow day since spring equinox. On Easter Sunday I sat clustered with families in a small dark chapel on the tip of the Keweenaw while a full-blown blizzard raged outside the windows. The Son may have risen, but the sun did not. Today, the cerulean sky over white snow stirs spring in my blood.

We turn a corner following the curves of the Portage Canal to Keweenaw Bay and instead of an expanse of white sea ice through the stands of naked white birch, azure beams back at us. Open water! Back in Hancock, the canal remains froze over, but local gossips spread rumors of the Coast Guard ice-breakers opening the shipping channels. Nothing says spring in a northern climate more than blue.

Blue beckons robins and hastens snowmelt. Open water calls to migrators braving a journey north to mate and nest. Just around another corner, a mass of iridescent green heads catches sunlight where mallard males sleep on a snow bank above another opening in the bay. The white surrounds the blue like crown jewels of diamonds and sapphires. The duck heads glimmer like little emeralds.

VA visits increase, yet they all hedge around what to do with the knee. At the hospital, the Hub hustles down a corridor outpacing me as if we’re on a road march. His gait rolls and dips like a pirate with a peg-leg. The last orthopedic we saw two weeks ago claimed the Hub had no limp after asking him to take three steps around the tiny examination room. I’ve followed this limping gait for years and know the effort it takes to muster through it.

Limp or no limp, the last ortho didn’t even have the MRI that took us three years to get. They sent the left knee image instead. The last ortho before last saw it and said it was pointless to view because the Hub has no meniscus left to examine and she said she’ll monitor the degradation of the knee as bone wears down bone.

Other appointments don’t require my advocacy because they are the actual care the Hub needs. After years of asking, doctors referring, Iron Mountain has approved much — acupuncture, physical therapy, and chiropractic. Next up, the Hub has several medical tests and memory tests to get a better idea of what is happening above the orthopedic system within the matter between the ears. Whatever the results, we will make a plan, continue to push for a knee replacement 30 years overdue, and take moments to appreciate the blue.

It’s now evening, and the sun still sits above the wooded hills of Hancock. As the solar orb sinks toward the western horizon, the abandoned Quincy Mine reflects a copper light as if to say, “Here they dug copper.” Sky ablaze, I walk into the local co-op to grab pecans and dried cranberries for my morning cottage cheese, feeling energized by a full day of sunlight. It’s nearly 8 p.m. and still light.

The cashier laughs with me as we joke and dream about it nearly being grilling season. She then tells me, “You have the sun sillies!”

Turns out, sun sillies is what she calls the energetic high people up north experience after the return of light following a long dark winter. I laugh. I do feel silly and full of spring fever. I feel hopeful. I feel like I’m on extended holiday full of Nowruz, Easter and Solstice celebrations. Is it no wonder we play April Fool’s jokes on April 1? We’re full of sun sillies!

Speaking of April Fool’s Day, my favorite toilet paper company, Who Gives a Crap, pulled a fast one and I fell for it. They sent me an email announcing the release of Crappy Coffee. I thought it brilliant. I wanted eco-friendly, small-batch roasted Crappy Coffee, so I signed up to receive it. Instead, they emailed me, “Aprils Fools!”

Time to get silly.

April 5, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a silly sun story. Up north, “sun silly” is the energetic and playful response to returning sunlight. It could also be an April Fool’s jest, a silly story, or a reaction to spring fever. Be silly and write playfully! Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by April 10, 2018. 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 your story published in the weekly collection, please use this form. If you want to interact with other writers, do so in the comments (yes, that means sharing your story TWICE — once for interaction and once for publication). Rules are here.

***

No Laughing in Church (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills

Reverend Smith’ voice rose to heaven and plunged to hell, persuading his brethren to choose the higher path. It was the first sermon before wagon trains broke winter camp.

Nancy Jane had promised to make “holy garbage” for supper. She and Sarah stood behind the crowd. The venison stew required horseradish and a priest’s blessing, but a circuit preacher would do. Sarah remained skeptical of both the sermon and her friend’s recipe. Breathing deep, she fought back the giggles.

When Sarah saw Cobb switch out Reverend’s water for what was probably moonshine, she succumbed to full out sun sillies.

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March 29: Flash Fiction Challenge

At first sniff, the clear liquid smells sour. The menu reads: grape leaf vinegar, mint and rose water. The concoction does not evoke the subtleties of pink petals or the promise of a fresh taste. Above the richly dressed crowd, lights beam geometric shapes across the ceiling in red, green, pink and blue. Digital flat screens display a New Year countdown that moves to the beat of electronic dance music. The pulse dares me to sip.

And I do.

To my surprise, the liquid glides sweetly across my tongue. Never judge a drink by its smell? Perhaps. But the aromas emanating from the buffet tables raise my expectations — grilled meats, heavy-handed spices, and frittered vegetables. Last, I grab a cup of dessert pudding with more rose water. Food infused with romance settles on my plate, and I weave my way back to the reserved table. I’m a guest tonight.

It is March 25, and we are celebrating the New Year. Tables packed with guests, many with families, form a horseshoe around a central stage. Even if you can’t see the stage directly, the digital flatscreens are mounted for clear viewing from any angle. Men are dressed in suits and women in evening dresses. I don’t mind that my outfit is simple. No one here is judging a book by its cover. Everyone smiles, welcoming.

Accouterments scatter across a table on the stage. Goldfish swim in a glass bowl surrounded by apples, garlic, sweetgrass and a bowl of painted eggs. Each item symbolizes health, prosperity, and happiness. Traditionally, all the guests wear new clothes. It’s spring, if not the exact equinox, then merely a few days later. The days are lengthening in the northern hemisphere, and no one can deny the renewal of life the season heralds.

Outside, snowbanks sag like swayed-back horses. Their geological record of snowfalls dips around the objects hidden beneath — boulders, park benches, small sheds. Spring can be dirty business. The south-facing bank of Quincy hill exposes bare ground as plain as the skin on a potato. Everywhere grit covers streets and sidewalks. Dog pellets slowly emerge day by day as the sun erodes their icy receptacle. We can only dream of freshness in the Keweenaw as dirty snow gives way to dirt.

We hold on for blades of grass.

Inside, the countdown ends, and we cheer in the New Year. A pianist flies his fingers across the keys and dinner tastes all the more succulent. It feels like renewal in this banquet hall at Michigan Tech University. Photos flash on the screen of places I’ve never before seen — moss on rocks, rivers, mountains, trees, cities, and deserts. Thes images connect many in the room to home. The celebration will suffice while they are away in a foreign land, studying engineering and technological sciences.

I’m an American celebrating an Iranian holiday among people my nation’s president would call enemies. How can I possibly view a culture whose writing reminds me of teacups and black olives as hostile? Laughter, rose water, and artistic performances tell me another story. People are not the enemy. Our fears and hatred cling to cultures like cancer. When we fight cancer, we don’t malign the person. To stand up for humanity, we must call out injustices, not cultures.

Tonight, I’m in love with Iranians.

Midway through the performances, a trio of musicians takes the stage. One plays the sitar, another a violin, and the third drums. I recognize the doumbek because my SIL, Solar Man, plays one as a drummer for my daughter’s belly-dance troupe. When the drummer plays his large frame drum, his fingers fly. I’m mesmerized. And so is he — eyes closed, frame tipped back, fingers dancing across tightened skin.

Next, my daughter and her fellow dancers take the stage in tribal influenced garb and dance to a Persian song. Radio Geek has recently cut her hair — it’s part classic bob, part shaved-head punk. By day in the office, the bob covers the undershaved sections. Tonight, she flaunts her inner punk. The troupe dances with energy to an appreciative crowd, and a delighted mum. This is the Persian New Year — Nowruz.

No-Rooz Mobarak! Happy Easter! Happy Spring! Chag Sameach! May peace and joy be with us all.

Before we get to the prompt, a bit of Ranch spring cleaning. Following last week’s deluge of information, you can now find the newly erected Rancher Badge page beneath the tab, Support Literary Art. You’ll find all the badges (plus a few new ones from your suggestions) in a clear and concise format. Now is the time to set goals. June 1 will be the first quarter to claim badges.

You will erase from memory, any mention of Facebook as a way to collect flash fiction. A great idea went downhill. It didn’t work as intended. Interact in the comments as usual — share your links, stories or pingbacks. If you want to be included in the published collection, submit your story via the form. Forget about short links, too! Write, and let your fingers fly across the keys.

March 29, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about fingers that fly. Think about the different ways we use our fingers and what happens when we add speed. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by April 3, 2018. 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 your story published in the weekly collection, please use this form. If you want to interact with other writers, do so in the comments (yes, that means sharing your story TWICE — once for interaction and once for publication). Rules are here.

***

Rumors of Quick Draws (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills

“Grab the mochila, boy!” Dock wasn’t any older than the new crippled stock handler, but he oversaw the mail exchange.

Sarah watched from the barn. The new handler grabbed the leather cover from the panting horse and draped it over the saddle of the waiting mount. The rider clambered up and sat on the mochila containing US mail.

“Haw!” The Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company rider departed Rock Creek.

Hickok’s fingers flew, grabbling leather straps, unsaddling the weary mount. His injured arm did nothing to hamper his agility. Rumors had it, the boy was a gunman.

***

Author’s Note: The Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company is a mouthful. No wonder we took to calling it the “Pony Express.”

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March 22: Flash Fiction Challenge

An inch of brown foam blooms over double scoops of grounds, and I wait 30 seconds before filling the press pot with more boiling water. After five minutes I press the grounds and pour the dark brew into a stainless steel mug, over a small spoonful of Northwoods maple syrup, stirring, stirring, stirring. I pour half and half while the whirlpool in a mug yet spins, and it lightens to tan. My final step is to strike a whole nutmeg thrice.

I have earned my Morning Coffee Badge.

This is a tale of badges and how they arrived at Carrot Ranch to help writers follow their dreams.

My dream is to write from a cloud of inspirational joy. I know what that levitated state feels like — it’s comparable to the snowboarder when wax catches air on a mountain face; it’s the rock climber midway through a 5.9 climb; it’s the first river raft run when only the guides dare to face the rapids. Writing is my adventure. Literary art is my sport.

I always said I’d have a ranch, one day. This wasn’t what I meant when I contemplated how to grow a herd of 300 black Angus or convince my new husband to buy a ramshackle homestead tucked into the shadows of Great Basin mountains. But I was young and thought writing was a part of the dream.

Now I know it is the dream — to write the stories that clutch my heart and to free the characters kicking around the trails of my mind. I want to know how to master words, to make them leap through fiery hoops. I want a reader to feel what I feel as a dreamer. The writing builds the bridge between us. This ranch might not have cattle, but it wrangles more stories than ever rode the dusty drives of the American West.

No matter where I rest my heels or dip my toes, I am always out West for it resides within me. Its transformational imprint doesn’t go away, and over the years its come to color my art in the duns of the desert and the reds of cedar bark. Mix that paint with the blues and greens of the Keweenaw, and I feel…home.

Of course, my virtual sandbox, the place where I play and run barefoot with the literary tribe, has to be a ranch. It is a ranch. Carrot Ranch. Where bacon is appreciated and the day begins with the perfect cup of coffee. This is where literary art is accessible, to you and to me!

But how do we grow such a tribe? From the bloom, it seemed easy — keep writing, keep playing, keep planning. Have you ever nurtured a zucchini plant from seed? It’s a hearty seed full of promise. Press it into the soil beneath a sunny disposition and water frequently with inspiration, and soon you have a bush that drops squash after squash after squash. What do you do when zucchini is abundant?

Diversify and share. Zucchini patties, breakfast bread, chocolate cake, chutney, oven chips, grilled spears, green smoothies and pale soups.

This is how the Rancher Badges came to be. The zucchini is abundant at the Ranch, so we are going to make good use of it. If this is a place where literary art is accessible — and it’s a fun, vibrant and authentic experience — then we can all find good uses for the abundance. We are going to make good of the increase in writers at Carrot Ranch.

Rancher Badges reward community interaction and empower individual writers. The idea is to invite engagement without expectation. It’s also a way to provide structure for each writer because we all have different reasons to be here. The diversity is what makes the Ranch a special place — you make the Ranch a special place!

The program is optional. You don’t have to play. If you do play along, it starts with you setting your sights on which Badges you want to earn. Think of it this way — if we are each here because it’s a stop along the path to follow our dreams, which of these badges will get you there? Which of these badges matters to you? Which badges make you smile? Which badges inspire you to feel a part of the tribe?

You set and track your own goals. Once a quarter (June 1, September 1, December 1, March 1) you will turn in your request for badges. An email or submission form will be posted. Within two weeks, you will receive a digital Badge Board through email. You may keep it private, print it or publically display it on your own blog. You can show it off on social media, or share it with your kids, partner, dogs or cats.

Same badges, new badges, and an annual board. Each year the program will offer a new board and updated badges. You can collect them from year to year, or retire a board when a new year begins. It’s all about how you want to play and show off what you earned. You get to decide what your goals are. The Ranch will reward you for achieving them.

*****INTRODUCING THE RANCHER BADGES*****

Participation Badges show your involvement in the challenges at the Ranch.

A quarterly star rewards your accumulative flash fiction over three months. You set the goal: once a quarter, once a month; once a week. The idea is to meet your expectations and not that of others. Be your own star!

An ambassador badge rewards your engagement with other Ranchers. If someone is new, welcome them to the Ranch. If someone has been gone a spell, welcome them back. Leave appreciative comments (say what you liked about a flash). Point out good craft. Visit other blogs. How often? How many handshakes? That’s your goal to set.

Writing Badges support your personal writing goals.

Carrot Ranch attracts a variety of writers and has three badges to support different goals. As an author, you can set word count goals or meet deadlines. As a blogger, you can set post goals or participation in other blog challenges. As a poet, you can set goals to write a certain number of poems or master a new technique or style.

The prolific badge rewards the writing habit you most want to cultivate — a number of pages per day, more fiction than non-fiction, word count, number of flash fictions, number of different blogging challenges. If it feels prolific to you, then it is.

The phrase “runs with scissors” is a tongue in cheek way to denote taking a risk. Maybe it terrifies you to submit a story to a contest. Maybe you want to ask others to beta-read, but you feel shy. Maybe you need to write the scene you try to ignore. This badge pushes you to take a writing risk.

Extracurricular Badges encourage you to accept other challenges at the Ranch beyond flash fiction.

Rough Writer and memoirist, Irene Waters, hosts a monthly writing challenge based on memory and includes comparative demographics. She guest writes at Carrot Ranch to teach memoir craft.

Rough Writer and grit lit author, C. Jai Ferry, pushes writers to the dark side of TwitterFlash where literature is carved into tweetable slices. She guest writes at Carrot Ranch to teach Twitter best practices for literary artists.

Raw Literature is an open guest series for any writer from our extended community. The personal essay explores why or how a writer writes. A new guest essay posts on Tuesdays.

If you hang out at the Ranch long enough, you’ll realize I love rocks as much as I love stories. I dreamed up #CarrotRanchRocks in the darkest days of a Keweenaw winter to combine geology with literary art. I’m looking for writers to join me in crafting 99-word stories about rocks which will go forth with a hashtag and a serial number for linking up to its story.

Community Badges recognize the attributes of writers among writers.

Are you social (friends)? Are you shy (lurker)? Let others know where you stand, or challenge yourself to connect more or explore unseen.

Sharing is caring in the blogosphere, and this badge gives you recognition. Teachers are also caring writers among us who like to teach us new words, techniques or challenge themselves to keep a growth mindset.

Just for Fun Badges recognize the playful spirit of writers at Carrot Ranch.

Love bacon? Love carrots? Show your preference (and both counts).

Flash fiction opens up avenues to creativity and trains the brain to problem-solve in 99 words, no more, no less. If you want to push your creativity, set goals, or simply embrace it, this creative badge says it all.

Unicorns. Carrot Ranch. Eventually, you’ll come to understand. In the meantime, if you dare to write a unicorn story, here’s your badge.

Administrative Badges identify community leaders.

The Congress of Rough Writers is the core group of this literary community. A small advisory team who leads the annual Rodeo form the leadership behind the scenes. Those who participated in Vol. 1 contributed to the book earning 5 stars from Readers’ Favorite.

How to earn Rancher Badges:

  1. Decide which badges best match how you want to participate at the Ranch as a writer.
  2. Set your own goals to further your writer’s journey.
  3. Keep track of your goals.
  4. Once a quarter (June 1, September 1, December 1, March 1) submit your request for badges.
  5. Within two weeks you will receive a board (or two) with your badges to display at will.

In addition to badges, we have another important change in process for the flash fiction challenges. I once said that my limit for collecting flash would be 50. We’ve exceeded that, and I’ve been thinking through my process for collecting and how it could change.

Right now, the way I collect keeps me from my own ranch. If I engage over the course of the week, I lose my place with the way pingbacks, links, and comments popuate. That’s why I ride in on Wednesdays and burn the 3 a.m. oil.

I’ve considered different ways, but I don’t want to diminish the interactive vibe we have going on or the level of diversity.

Before the participation bloomed as robust as zucchini, I collected stories on the Carrot Ranch Facebook page. This allowed me to apply the CR style and clear the formatting. But the back and forth became too much.  I will now ask all writers who want to be included in the weekly collection to post stories at http://www.facebook.com/CarrotRanch/ following the CR style:

Title in Title Caps by Pen Name or Author Name

99-word flash fiction

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Short link if applicable (use https://goo.gl/)

Notes to editor: such as italics or centering of poetry

This step is in addition to linking, ping-backing or leaving your story in the comments. I’m asking you to take this step to help free up my process so I can be more interactive throughout the week. There is no need for anyone to comment on stories on FB. Keep the comments here and/or directly on shared blog links. It’s okay if you don’t understand the style, but it reduces my workload if you follow it.

The reason Carrot Ranch has a style is for editorial consistency. Each country of origin retains its own spelling and punctuation except for the title and byline. I’ll be reminding each of you in the comments.

If you are allergic to Facebook, a ludite or worried about Russian interference, please use the Contact Form as an alternative.

Now to play!

March 22, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story using the theme “follow your dreams.” Bonus points for throwing a badge into the tale. Go where the prompt leads.

  • Respond by March 27, 2018, by leaving a link, pingback or story in the comments.
  • If you want your story published in the weekly collection, also post it at Carrot Ranch on Facebook in the post newsfeed (this is the second posting of your story).
  • Follow the style of the flash fiction that follows.
  • Leave a short link on FB with your story if you want one included in the title.
  • Rules are here.

***

Comanche by Charli Mills

Follow your dreams, they said. So, he stomped dry dust up the Kickapoo Trace into Missouri, dodging the likes of Jesse James. He was handsome, strong and nicknamed Comanche. In St. Louis he gathered with the rest, seeking fortunes west, avoiding the plow. He had dreams. The Army picked only the best, and he stood tall and proud, selected for service. Outfitted with Captain Keogh of the 7th, he marched wild and free. That’s how he felt, living the dream. Until he took seven bullets on Custer’s Battlefield. And lived. The only survivor, the handsome brown-eyed mustang from Texas.

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https://wp.me/p2trS5-2S5

March 15: Flash Fiction Challenge

My son, Runner, always finishes the race.  He’s the kind of man who takes the time to achieve his goal. I like to think he’s a chip off the mom-block, but he’s his own person.

By the time he was ready to apply to college, he only wanted to visit one. He had narrowed down all the possibilities to one. Of course, teachers, coaches, and parents suggested having a few secondary options.

Nope. Runner knew what degree we wanted, the level of college sports he wanted and what region he wanted to further his education. He applied to one school, tried out for one team and graduated with his Bachelors and Masters from one University.

He finished the race.

Next came job seeking. Again, Runner held a laser focus toward the type of job he wanted with his psychology degree in industrial organization. He worked as a bartender and restaurant manager for the interim and then moved to a place called Baraboo when his girlfriend found her dream job. He didn’t give up, and yesterday he texted to tell me he got his first entry-level job with a company that will use his degree.  I texted back my excitement.

Runner has been on my mind this week because of all my three children he was the one to take to the kitchen. In high school, we called him Betty Crocker because every Sunday night he’d get out my cookbook and bake — pies, cookies, quick bread. One pie he’d give to his dad with the instructions to stay out of the remaining desserts. Those were for his cross-country and track friends. While Runner always finishes the race, he also makes sure everyone on his team does, too.

He has a gifted social intelligence; a strength called “woo.”

Perhaps it was his gift of woo that also made him adept at sales when he was still just a teen. He worked as a sales rep for a Minneapolis office supply store and one day he met a customer who returned with an offer for Runner — to sell Cutco Knives. For a year, he did. The knives are gorgeous and high quality, but high priced, too. As a gift, when Runner left for college, he gave me his demo set.

Of course, they are wickedly sharp knives. After a prolific pumpkin harvest in our backyard (to the annoyance of my suburban neighbors, I grew food and pollinator plants all over our lawn and flower beds), Runner nearly cut off his thumb. The bone stopped the knife. After that, we all developed respect for the Cutco set.

Throughout wandering, a few of the Cutco Knives have traveled with me. One is an eight-inch chef knife. I’m not sure how it wrangled its way into my small box of kitchen gear. Perhaps it had been too big to plant safely in a storage box. But it is with us yet, and the Hub likes to use it to cut ham and cheese slices. I avoid the monstrous straight edge.

This past weekend, we received sad news that our cat of 15 years had died. She had gone to a new home after we had lost ours.

Both the Hub and I cried when we received the text. It was early afternoon, and I decided to cook a vegetable stir-fry. Solar Man and Radio Geek had left for Minneapolis to spend the birthday weekend with his mom. After all we’ve been through, it was a vulnerable moment. We were in the kitchen together, me prepping veggies and him slicing ham because I was cooking vegan.

The Hub dropped the knife. The Cutco Chef blade. Stainless steel, heavy duty, forever sharp. Guaranteed.

He was barefooted. The knife — as he has since described — spun a perfect pirouette and fell point-down, bouncing off his bare foot. I didn’t see it happen, so much as I realized he dropped the monstrosity of a knife, and automatically, I grabbed the roll of paper towels with one hand and shut off the gas burner with the other, and sunk to my knees.

The first glimpse was not good. The Hub’s foot split open like a ripe plum. When shock first hits, the body does not bleed. Did you know that? Maybe you didn’t want to know that, but it’s a fascinating scientific fact. No blood is a bad sign. Shock can be fatal. Bleeding out can be fatal, too. And blood arrived in a torrent. He cut a vein.

I was thirteen years old when I signed up for my initial first responder’s class. My father served as volunteer fire captain, and when the Red Cross trained the volunteers, I was one. Growing up in a remote mountain town where the nearest hospital was an hour away in good weather, I not only knew first-aid, I had ample practice. I can shut off any emotions of fear or squeamishness. It’s like going into a soundproof room — everything slows down, noise cancels, and I breathe rhythmically.

That’s what I did, kneeling with paper towels, compressing the Hub’s foot. I became hyper-aware, noting where each dog was, assessing the stove was off, planning our trip to ER. The Hub reacted the same way — his Ranger training kicked in, and without a passing word between us we knew the plan. He slid his foot toward the front door, and I crawled and compressed.

At the edge of the kitchen, I told him to stop. With one hand on the third wad of red-soaked paper towels, I reached with the other to open the junk drawer, hoping to find…packing tape! Grabbing it and a fresh wad of towels, I wrapped the Hub’s foot tight. We grabbed jackets, and I made sure he had his VA card for insurance purposes.

We discovered the Hancock Emergency Room to be a friendly and quiet place. It’s the first time I’ve ever been to an ER where they had to turn on the lights and heat because it the room with all its beds sat empty. Our nurse shared a good sense of humor, and when she asked the Hub if he felt safe at home, she glanced my way and laughed.

The Doc irrigated the wound and delivered the good news that no tendons suffered a slice. But the vein was a concern, and she sewed up the wound. The next day his toes and foot turned purple from bruising. We met with his therapist that day and had a good story for her. She is working with us to get the Hub’s knee fixed, too, recognizing that his mental health issues stem from the crisis this long-overlooked war wound causes him. She told us, “It’s about quality of life.”

I didn’t cry once, seeing all the blood, but I wept for a cat I gave up six years ago, and I sobbed at the thought that someone in the VA system gave a damn about my husband’s quality of life. It’s good to have someone who cares.

So that brings me to cake. Carrot cake, of course. Cake is my all-time favorite celebratory and comfort food. I’m celebrating Runner’s new job, the Hub’s continued care with the VA, sharp knives and sharp wit. With all of you, I’m celebrating four years of literary art we all get to share. I’m passing around the cake.

March 16, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about carrot cake. It can be classic or unusual. Why is there cake? How does it feature in the story. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by March 20, 2018, to be included in the compilation (published March 21). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!

***

An Unexpected Exchange (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills

Mary McCanles set the carrot cake in the window sill to cool. Several Otoe boys hunkered beneath the window, and Sarah watched them from the shade of the horse-barn. One boy reached toward the cake. From inside the house, a man’s large hand grasped the boy’s wrist. Instead of squeals of terror, they all laughed at the one who got caught. A flour sack of carrots passed from the man’s hands to the boy’s and the Otoe ran off toward their family holdings. Sarah shook her head. Leave it to Cobb to be generous to those others feared.

###

March 8: Flash Fiction Challenge

A bag of colorful balloons adds festivity to any day. Snowflakes the size of downy feathers float from the omnipresent gray cloud, and all I want is to blow up colorful latex and toss color to the sky. Can you imagine the sight? Red, blue, green, purple and yellow globes of color floating among the snowflakes and bouncing lightly from drift to drift.

Despite a snow-locked land and a frozen shore, my mind and body respond to longer days of light. Not even the clouds can prevent its penetration. For five luscious days, the clouds backed off to hang over Lake Superior, and the southern sun-porch warmed up enough for noon coffee. On the sixth day, snow returned, and my teeth chattered as I tried to capture the joy of sitting in the sun. It was of no use, and I retreated back to the rooms with storm windows and radiant heat.

From my desk, I watch the snow and dream of balloons.

I’m in a festive mood because Carrot Ranch is celebrating four years of flash fiction challenges. Evidently, I drink coffee and talk a lot about the weather. Here’s how I opened the first challenge on March 5, 2014:

In northern Idaho, rain is falling on packed snow. It is a good day to hunker over the keyboard with a mug of hot Yuban coffee. But no matter your weather or drinking preference, I hope you have stopped by Carrot Ranch to pick up a prompt.

That day from a different northern climate, I let go a balloon with a message, hoping someone would answer. It was lonely drinking coffee and tapping keys. I wanted to recapture the camaraderie had felt back in the ’90s while I attended college for a degree in creative writing. I missed the passionate discussions in classes, where we sought hidden meanings in the language of authors. I missed sharing my writing for feedback from classmates I had grown to know and trust. I missed dreaming of the well with kindred spirits.

Many times since I tried to recreate those moments from college. I kept in touch with classmates and professors. I read. I attended literary workshops and joined writing groups. For a brief time, I found a close fit on a social media site called Gather. Started in 2005, the site encouraged discussion. I found groups where I could write fun and quick literary challenges, and I created lasting friendships. Several writers, I employed through my work as a marketing communicator for a natural food co-op, and Gather is where I met Ann Ravoula, a designer who worked with me to build an award-winning regional publication. She’s also the designer of our Carrot Ranch logo, Rough Writer log, and the cover for Vol. 1.

Gather instilled in me the idea that visual and literary artists could come together in meaningful ways. Unfortunately, social media site went the way of profiteering and became more about affinity marketing than social interaction. Affinity marketing sites are ones that force social interaction through a reward system. The idea is to boost traffic so the site owners can sell more lucrative ads. It killed the organic interactions and people left, no longer enjoying the experience.

In 2014 I wondered if I could create a writing challenge on my own website. Two years earlier I had left my job to write a novel. I wrote for business clients and felt isolated from my literary writing. I wrote about marketing and small business for magazines and newspapers, but I had no continuity among literary writers beyond the one month a year that I joined NaNoWriMo. Even there I felt isolated, not knowing anyone else, and the closest regional group was over 100 miles away.

My website was a placard for writing, and Carrot Ranch was the name of my communications business. But the website never generated business — I do that through a network of colleagues and clients, using email and cell phone. I wondered if I could shift some of my marketing knowledge to writers through blog posts, build up relationships and convince writers to play weekly with a literary art form called flash fiction.

Four years ago I launched the ballon, and five writers showed up: Susan Zutautas, Paula Moyer, Norah Colvin, Ruchira Khanna and Jason Kennedy. I knew Susan and Ruchira from social media connections. Paula is family (her Solar Man is married to my Radio Geek). Jason knew Susan (or they were both Canadian).  And Norah showed up with a gift in hand — a Liebster Award. I had no idea what it was but delighted that I wasn’t alone to meet my challenge.

From this humble start, I came to identify “the thing” I had been missing — a literary community. The question was, could we build one through practicing flash fiction together? Four years later I’m happy to report that the answer is yes. In fact, Norah helped me collect my thoughts on the topic, and she wrote a chapter on Building Community in The Congress of Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology Vol. 1. When we wrote that book, and I worked with 29 other writers to bring it to fruition, I realized that we had been strangers until we wrote together.

And that’s a beautiful realization.

Carrot Ranch evolved from communications to a literary community. We make literary art accessible — we write, read and discourse. You’ve probably noticed we keep the feedback positive. In Vol. 1, Norah repeats the message:

Be positive, be polite, be encouraging.

It’s not stated anywhere explicitly, but my philosophies on writers feedback originate from three sources:

  1. Servant Leadership: a philosophy and set of practices that enrich the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.
  2. Appreciative Inquiry (AI): a change management approach that focuses on identifying what is working well, analyzing why it is working well and then doing more of it. The basic tenet of AI is that an organization will grow in whichever direction that people in the organization focus their attention.
  3. StrengthsFinder (from Gallup): developing your strengths to do what you do best every day.  The pursuit of meaning — not happiness — is what makes life worthwhile. Knowing your strengths and using them is meaningful.

Over the course of four years, I’ve seen the impact of building a literary community through flash fiction on my own writing and that of others. We’ve met each other with care and have built trust, extending it to an environment where writers feel safe to explore and experiment. And we have fun!

Last October we launched a Flash Fiction Rodeo of eight contests. And that was loads of fun, plus eight writers each won a purse. We have a collection of outstanding writing from all the entries, and I intend to publish them in an e-book. I’ve already commissioned a cover, but when I tried to buy the software to design the inside, I realized I needed a Mac. I’m all for balloons, but I’m not going Mac. If anyone has suggestions, I’m open to learning.

Also in motion is Vol. 2. This goes beyond a collection. It begins with new 99-word arrangements from the Rough Writers (our core group from the community) and plays with “serial” arrangements. Think Marvel Comics (at least, that’s what I’m thinking)! You’ll bet we’ll have some BOTS and memoir essays and extended stories. We also have invited our Friends (those who write challenges frequently or lurk weekly) to play with a surprise challenge.

The editing process is intensive — from collecting submissions, working one-on-one with writers on development, working with a Rough Writer editorial team to define and maintain a style guide that represents global writers, working with special content writers, proofing, designing and proofing again. Four years ago I had no idea I’d be doing this, but I knew I longed to be doing meaningful work with literary art beyond my own writing.

From one little balloon, set free with a message — come write 99 words, no more, no less.

Now we are growing and bursting at the barn doors! In business, we say that’s a “good problem” to have. In communities, we focus on servant leadership practices to better understand what makes the community thrive. Going back to our three drivers of literary art — writing, reading, and discourse — I’m exploring ways to stay vibrant, relevant and engaged.

Writing. Our vibrancy comes from our diversity. We come from different locations, backgrounds, experiences, demographics, and genres of writing. I also understand that we each have different reasons for coming to the Ranch. Some seek the discipline of writing prompts; some want to increase their blog interactions; some are looking for the camaraderie. We are all looking to write. Bloggers can share links and writers can submit stories. We also offer Guest Posts.

Reading. We actually have a dedicated readership at Carrot Ranch, outside of our writers. That’s good! I also collect stories to read out loud and arrange into weekly collections. This is an area I want to grow. Readers have the opportunity to discover new writers and their blogs and books.

Discourse. We like to discuss at Carrot Ranch! Well, I’m sure you’ve seen those of us who do. I think we all keep a good balance with those who like discourse and those who just want to share the story quietly. Part of the infrastructure plan is to build a forum at Carrot Ranch. Part of it will be for Rough Writer work or Rodeo planning, and parts will be open to asking questions within the community or start topic threads.

I’m looking for anyone who might be interested in serving as Ranch Ambassadors (spreading goodwill among the writers who gather, so everyone feels welcomed as the response grows) and Ranch Moderators (assist with collecting and arranging weekly challenge responses). Each position will be volunteer (though I may send you books or rocks) and will have a brief description of participation. If you are interested in more of a leadership role and have a few hours a week to spare, shoot me an email wordsforpeople@gmail.com.

Let me take time to introduce you to the Leadership Team who serve as Rodeo Contest Leaders and as an informal advisory group: Geoff Le Pard, Sherri Matthews, Irene Waters, Norah Colvin, D. Avery, JulesPaige and C. Jai Ferry. They already serve as ambassadors and support the Ranch in areas of extending literary accessibility (memoir, TwitterFlash, education, Ranch Yarns and behind-the-scenes support).

In October we will once again host the Flash Fiction Rodeo. Our Leadership Team will return to the event. We will put out a call at that time for new leaders who want to mentor in 2019 with the Leadership Team. In 2020 they will become the new Leadership Team, and in 2021 they will mentor a new group.

Why? It’s to develop leadership in the literary community through different roles and opportunities. Just as Carrot Ranch is a safe, fun and positive place to write, it’s all that for stepping out of your comfort zone and participating in more meaningful ways among the community.

And if you are rolling your eyes and saying, get to the prompt already — that’s okay, too! We make literary art accessible one 99-word flash fiction at a time. We come to the Ranch to play. Do what feels right for you, further your goals, dream, and by all means, keep writing!

If you like what we are doing here, consider offering Patron Support. It’s not required, but it helps with building and maintaining infrastructure to serve the community and helps cover the costs associated with publishing. Plus you can earn some cool gifts from the Lead Buckaroo.

One last consideration, let loose your own balloon this week. Do something that scares you, but you want to try. Take a risk, and take a step toward the dream you hold. The worst that can happen is that no one sees your balloon. But no one will if you don’t blow it up and let it fly!

March 8, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that features a balloon. It can be a party balloon or a hot air balloon. How does it add to your story? Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by March 13, 2018, to be included in the compilation (published March 14). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!

***

At the Edge of a Long Winter by Charli Mills

Searching the newspaper before I fire up the woodstove, a classified diverts my attention. For Sale: Party Balloon, Never Celebrated. There’s a number, and I recognize the area code for Montana. I’m across the border in North Dakota, trying to keep warm with seven other oil rig guys in a tin-roof modular on some farmer’s north forty. After my housemates rise to the heat of corncobs and newspaper, I finish my coffee and call.

“Hello?” A woman’s voice.

“Um, yeah, calling about your balloon.”

“Cabin fever. I needed to hear another voice.”

“Oil rigger. I’m lonely, too.”

“Let’s talk!”