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July 9: Flash Fiction Challenge

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.

 

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.

July 2: Flash Fiction

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.

June 25: Flash Fiction Challenge

My son tells me its 55 days until his wedding. Then he asks, “Dad got his suit, yet?” Trying to get a 56-year-old brain-altered former US Army Ranger into a tailored suit for his son’s wedding is no minor feat. Never mind it was this same man who taught his son to dress up for flying back when the Hub worked for the airlines and we flew standby, dressed to take seats in first class. Now he tells his son he’s going to wear navy-colored sweatpants. Last year, the joking was funny. 55 days out, not so much.

So, my son is harassing me. (Not that I mind, if this is how I get my son to call me every day, I’ll happily be harassed.)

I thought I was on top of the game. I found a mother of the groom dress I liked and contacted a tailor I know through one of my good Keweenaw friends. Her sister designs and sews all her clothes, and they are stylish and vibrant. The tailor looked at the dress and said she could put various patterns together and make me a one-of-a-kind. My friend and I planned to drive to Chicago where her sister lived for a measuring session. Then COVID hit in March.

That’s when I decided to order the original dress. Except, the online bridal shop gets their dresses from China and they could not confirm delivery. At the same time, I ordered something small from China for the Unicorn Room and it still hasn’t arrived. So, I think it was a good call that I did not plunk down hundreds of dollars for an uncertain delivery of a dress. Still, I haven’t had such a fuss over a dress since my own wedding when a friend re-created a western chantilly lace wedding dress from a 1980s Este Lauder ad.

Finally, I found a dress online, in the states, and on the low end of my budget. When it arrived, I tried it on only to find it was too big. I mailed it back and re-ordered a different size, and now I’m worrying that it’s too plain. I’m the kind of person whose fashion sense vacillates between favorite threadbare flannel and blaze orange capris with flowy butterfly top. My gears are too plain and too garish, and I know my son would be horrified if I showed up with his dad in sweats and me in some sequined purple chiffon.

And if that’s not worrisome enough, when the Hub settled on the suit jacket he hastily bought while we were homeless, our son said that would be appropriate for the rehearsal dinner. I had forgotten about attire for the pre-event. In another tailspin, I began searching for a summer cocktail dress on Amazon (how’s that for desperation?). Don’t knock the soul-sucking warehouse of everything — they literally sell everything. I found three dresses and three pairs of sandals. Only one of the dresses would arrive on time so that’s the one I ordered. The shoes, British-made Clarks which I love for comfort and fit, will mysteriously arrive next week.

Then, today I received a package from another dress shop. Somehow, I had forgotten that I panicked over the rehearsal dress sometime shortly after the COVID lockdown began and it arrived today! Where my memory goes, I do not know sometimes. And I say the Hub is brain-altered. Well, aren’t we all. When I pulled the item out of the package, it was a slinky black dress. I’m flannel or eccentric, definitely not slinky black dress. I looked at the size and barked a laugh. I’m also definitely not a size Extra Small. Evidently, some extra-small gal is scratching her head over my extra-large flowy floral cocktail dress. Having taken months to arrive, I dreaded calling the company, but they were helpful and promised to expedite my order.

So when my son calls to check in on his dad’s progress, I hold back on the full naked truth of our wedding clothes snafus. And we did make progress thanks to a wedding shop in town that just re-opened. As of now, the Hub has rented a tux and ordered a suit online after talking to a specialist. Who would have thought it would be the boy to fuss over what to wear for his wedding? The eldest girl got married on an organic farm and butchered her own pig prior to the ceremony. No, that wasn’t part of the ceremony, just the commitment to harvest her own food for the reception. That, the Hub and I could handle. The other girl? She’s brewing beer on Svalbard with her partner and they have no plans to marry. If they do, we’ll need passports and parkas. Easier than finding me a dress or getting the Hub to agree to a suit, I assure you.

At the end of the day, I can take stock and declare, “I got life.”

It’s not the things. It’s not the clothes. As much as I appreciate the home and its fixings, being homeless taught me the value of life. There’s something empowering about declaring ownership over yourself. I got my toes. I got my arms, my hands, my thumbs. I got fingers. I got my head, my brain, my liver. I take in breath. I got life. Let Nina sing it to you, let her words crawl into your soul, watch her face, her body as she gives her life over to her song and piano. Write like you got life.

Things are looking mighty crazy out there in the big wide world, but if we got life, we got hope. This is a time to keep writing. I know the distractions are huge, but so is our capacity for art. Be oppositional — if you want to write a story one way, write it the opposite and see what pops up. You might be surprised. Let characters talk in your head. Don’t interfere, take notes. Imagine the world upsidedown. What would it be like to walk on the sky? Shake it up, shake your booty, dance on the page. And if you have any tips on how to dress up for a special wedding, I’ll try to pay attention.

June 25, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story with the phrase, “I got life.” It can be told from any point of view. What meaning does it lend to your story? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by June 30, 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.

After the Boomtown by Charli Mills

Saxophone notes squeaked across the empty hard-packed street. Sophie swung her hips to the tempo, stirring a pot of slow-elk stew over a campfire. “What I’d give for carrots,” she told Hal.

He paused his playing. “You got seeds Miss Sophie. Plant a garden.”

“A garden means I have to stay in this god-forsaken ghost town.” She missed Italy. She missed rain.

Hal played lower, softer until Sophie dished them up bowls. “Won’t always be deserted,” he said when she handed him dinner.

“Got no customers. Got no gold. Got no carrots. Got no husband. But I got life.”

June 18: Flash Fiction Challenge

When my eldest was a toddler, she’d express her excitement by clenching her fists close to her head and vibrating her entire body. Ever get that feeling? I want to clench, squeal, and vibrate every evening as the Roberts Street “Littles” emerge — a menagerie of baby critters. Somehow, the word’s gone out that my fairy gardens and below deck are safe places to leave off little ones, including two baby chipmunks, two fledged robins, a baby gray squirrel, a baby bunny, and a juvenile frog. They are so cute, my body hums.

Pre-summer evenings linger at the 47th parallel on the tail-end of the eastern time zone. Throughout June and most of July, last light remains past 10:30 p.m. It’s deceptive when we BBQ in the “evening” and realize it’s 9 pm. Of course, my personal time clock is wonky — I come to life in the evening and write or study most productively until 3 am. It’s a joy to watch young life unfold in my yard before sunset the way I imagine some people enjoy sunrises.

My former boss was a sunriser. She’d get that vibration about her every new place we went for conferences or work-related travel. It was bad enough that she was parsimonious (her favorite word), cramming her senior managers into as few hotel rooms as possible. I’ve even slept with my boss. Slept. I joked that I was going to turn her into HR, and from across the room, HR laughed with me. We were a close-knit management team, and I wouldn’t trade the lessons of that period of my life. My boss was a true servant-leader and taught me the value of building platforms that benefited communities. And sometimes, that meant sharing a room, bed, and sunrises.

One particular sunrise I remember was on the North Shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota (that Lady Lake of mine gets around). We were on a work retreat, and it was close enough to autumn to be cold in the pre-dawn morning. No one else would go with our boss to the lake to catch the sunrise. She had figured out the precise point to see dawn slip over the lake’s eastern horizon. By the time she laid a hand on my shoulder, I could smell coffee brewing. We filled a thermos and grabbed two mugs. Everyone else slept. We walked along a narrow and craggy trail to a place where we could sit on the bedrock and wait for the sun to appear. We shivered, huddled around our coffee, and were not disappointed.

When I watch the sunset over the western horizon of Lake Superior, I feel like that sunrise over a decade ago reflects back to me. I’m on the opposite side now, in tune with what harmonizes in me.

Earlier today, I met with a representative at the Michigan Small Business Development Center. It’s a resource of the US Small Business Administration, a government organization that supports entrepreneurs and small businesses. As a professional writer (meaning, this is my source of income), I’ve contracted a patchwork of services. Every author grapples with the reality that books alone will likely not make a living. I say likely because there are exceptions, superstars, and specific strategies to that truth of authorhood. Some exceptions include moderate success within a lucrative commercial genre (this requires multiple books). Superstars are the likes of J. K. Rowling and Stephen King. Specific strategies include shrewd studies of market trends and writing books to fill readership gaps (rather than writing the books you want to pen).

Mostly, professional authors find secondary sources of income. One professor told me he publishes books and “assets” (and, obviously, he teaches). Assets are value-added products that enhance your book — e-book, audio recording, a graphic novel based on your book, a series of podcasts, figurines or jewelry based on characters or props, music based on your book, character drawings. In addition to products (books and assets), professional authors teach — universities, online courses, webinars, workshops, retreats — or speak at conferences for a fee. Some work the book club angle and sell packages of their books and access to Q&A with the author. Some sell international book rights, others option their books for movies or Netflix series. Some offer services — agencies, PR, editing, coaching, marketing. Some supplement income, working odd jobs or temporary gigs in between writing and publishing books.

Whether you make it to superstar status or you work the secondary sources of income, authors do more than pound away at the keyboard and publish books.

This is what I’m working with the SBA to develop — a way to recognize the hard work of any path a writer takes and define what steps next for personal growth and professional development (if that is your path; it doesn’t have to be). Imagine being a writer who writes every single day — that’s commitment! But this dedicated writer has no interest in creating products or offering services, which leads to others not counting them as a “real” writer. I’ll be creating something that honors such a writer in addition to recognition for annual growth. It’s based on a program I used to apply for as a marketing communications manager.

Earlier in my MFA, I got excited (not quite full-body vibrations) about the possibility of coaching. However, after creating plans in my course, I realized it’s hard for me to offer individual services. I’m a high-energy person, and I put a lot into anything I do. Coaching would wipe me out. I realized it’s why I was struggling to work as a writing contractor. What I’m going to build will be more like mass coaching with a platform where I can invite other writers to coach and teach, too. I can get focused, manage my time, grow the literary outreach to expand beyond libraries and veterans to include more diversity and greater involvement from the community. The SBA is helping me build a business plan that is both sustainable and supportive of the writing community. I can incorporate the lessons of my sunriser boss to lift up others to make the writing world a better place. And I get to define my role in that ecosystem as a professional author.

Often, when you follow your North Star, the excitement can be palpable. Yet the possibilities of how to get there can be overwhelming. Sometimes, it shines down on us, and we are in the worst place to manifest its promise. But circumstances are always shifting, like it or not, life is in a daily flux between sunrises and sunsets. What’s important is that we set our North Star and follow its guidance. Right now, mine is starting to hum. And I’m ready.

June 18, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes good vibrations. What is unfolding? Is someone giving off or receiving the feeling? Where is the story situated? Gather some good vibes and go where the prompt leads!

Respond by June 23, 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.

Liberation by Charli Mills

Gran’ma’s mama was an Okie from Muskogee, a fruit-picker in Tres Pinos, California, where Steinbeck Country ended in hayfields, orchards, and coastal mountains. She died young – 36 – cancer from unbridled use of pesticides in the 1930s. Gran’ma married a bull rider, a real bull shitter, too. They chased the tails of rodeos and ranch work across Nevada and back to Tres Pinos too many circuits to count. When he finally died of liver cirrhosis, Gran’ma shocked us all and married a Moscogo. White hand in black, they held the good vibes of Juneteenth, understanding the long wait for liberation.

June 11: Flash Fiction Challenge

Deep waters fill my cup. A teabag bobs like a small raft, brown stains the water. The cup — Polishware handpainted in circles and flowers, blue and orange — is too hot to hold, so I pull down the long sleeves of my flannel shirt like makeshift potholders, and I grip the cup between my covered hands. Heat seeps into cold bones. It’s 40 degrees F tonight, and the Hub has all the windows flung open. I huddle in my recliner, tuck up my knees, and sip hot tea. I contemplate deep waters.

In my mind’s eye, I can see to the bottom of the lake. The deep water is so clear it acts as a lens. I scope the watery landscape for large agates, but sediment covers the rocks, and they all look like brown cobbles. Farther out, the shelf drops so steeply all you can see is clear blue, clear blue, clear blue. I don’t dare venture that far, a novice in a kayak. I know better than to tempt Lady Lake into an invitation to tea below. The vastness of water feels so big it swells around me.

I once lost sight of mountains. In all of my life, I could look to familiar ridges and peaks. I used to tell people I was born in the Gabilans, raised in the Sierra, and educated in the Rockies. Then we moved to Iowa. The final mountain ranges faded, and prairie flattened all around me. In a panic, I wondered if this was what it was like to lose sight of land. Did a sailor feel what I felt when the shore dipped away? Roads laid out in grids across Iowa, and every day I’d get lost; the farms with house, silos, and cornfields all looked the same. There were no mountains to guide me home. Laura Ingalls Wilder once lived in Iowa and never wrote about it. All I have to say is that I lost my identity there.

Deep waters brought me home. Not to Montana, but to Minnesota with its North Shore of Lake Superior — the craggy, wild side of the lake. I orientated to co-ops, local food, and up north. Identity adapted. No mountain, but I could feel the energy of the lake, and I was lulled. Every summer, we tossed the canoe on the Expedition, loaded up three kids, tents, and outdoor cooking kitchen. On a lake in the boundary waters, the Hub and I paddled, the kids on shore, when we heard our daughter bellow, “Mooooose!” We cut across those deep waters of emerald green, headed to the rocks and pines of shore, frantically calling out the names of our children. That canoe never glided so fast. One daughter bumped into the backend of a moose and scared it worse than it scared her. We laugh to this day over her bellow. That kid could have been a yodeler. I decided I was pleased that moose lived near mountains and deep waters. A connection.

They say moose crossed the ice of Lake Superior when it froze between Canada and Isle Royale. The wolves followed. Another camping trip north, the kids and I rode Voyeguer II across Lake Superior to visit the most remote National Park in the lower 48. Over deep waters, the air temperatures drop 30 to 40 degrees from land. We saw another moose that day, swimming along the shore of the island. We hiked the park trails, and when the Voyeguer blasted its horn to call passengers back to harbor, we turned around, passing another person from our boat. He started to say something to me about my dog. I gave him a funny look because I had no dog with us. The wolf who decided to be our canine companion dashed off into the trees. No one had time to yell, “Wolf!” Somehow, the kids were less excited over a predator following them than running into a sleeping moose. We crossed back over those deep waters on 14-foot swells.

That’s how I like to enjoy Lake Superior — on her shoreline facing the roar of rolling water. She’s become my mountains, my solitude, my place of reflection. May we all take time to reflect. Waters run deep.

June 11, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story deep waters. It can be literal or metaphorical. Think of a place and person and situation. Explore. Bathe. Renew. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by June 16, 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.

Into Deep Waters by Charli Mills

What to place in my memory box? That last night out at the Fitz when the sun slanted across the western horizon dazzling like a copper-clad ruby while five-foot waves chomped the last of winter’s ice. March 13. We reached across the table, five friends sharing poutine and smoked brisket. We sang happy birthday. Later we dodged deer crossing the road back to Calumet, we stopped for a Bota Box of red wine. We found toilet paper, joking that Yoopers wouldn’t panic buy TP. Into deep waters, memories plunge. Most vivid — the last time I felt normal.

June 4: Flash Fiction Challenge

When I was a child, I attended the same school for second thru eighth-grade, having lived in the smallest in California county by population. For perspective, Los Angelos County is home to 10,098,052 people, whereas Alpine County is home to 1,146. We had no high school, and the snowpack of the Sierra Nevadas cut us off from those in the Lake Tahoe Basin. So, we bussed an hour out of the mountains into the Carson Valley, where we attended high school in Minden, Nevada. I know what it feels like to be bussed an unwelcomed. And yet…

I can remember the call to order every morning at Diamond Valley Elementry School for seven years. When the morning bell rang, we all proceeded to our classrooms where grades were combined — first/second, third/fourth, fifth/sixth, seventh/eighth. Kindergarteners had their own room and only attended half a day.

No matter our grades or rooms, we all began the day the same way with right hands over hearts, facing a small wall-mounted American flag, and reciting along with our teachers:

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Justice for all.

From the time I was a small child, before school, I loved my country. I fell in love with my nation at the Bolado Park annual rodeo where four generations of my family rode, three of them bull-riders (I tackled goats and showed horses). The thrill of the rodeo was the opening parade of contestants where buckaroos rode together under the colors of their ranch on their outfit’s best stock with all the silver polished on bridles and spurs. The Rodeo Queen led us behind the American flag. We gathered in the arena, facing the grandstands, the flag in front of us. Then someone sang, “Oh, say can you see…” Our nation’s anthem.

In school, my Washo friends gave me a different perspective on our small county. I learned stories and sought out places where their ancestors had fished and made pine nut flour, finding petroglyphs and grinding holes in granite boulders not far from my house. I loved this ancient history as much as the pioneer history. Driving to my dad’s logging camp, I used to count the number of depressions where Silver Mountain City once stood, now nothing but sunken cellars and a stone wall that was a jailhouse. As a teenager, I helped preserve county documents and recorded archeological sites.

To me, my country was rodeo, history, and education. It was the land of the free and the brave. It was purple mountain majesty.

My patriotism reflected a small-world experience of the American flag. I didn’t put expectations on the flag, but I know I felt proud to be an American, singing along with Lee Greenwood, “Where at least I know I’m free!” Sitting in the saddle or standing with my classmates, I felt a deep appreciation for my country. I recited every school day for twelve formative years, “…and justice for all.” It never occurred to me as a child that the words were untrue.

Decades later, I try to imagine what it was like to grow up reciting those words in school only to experience a different world. I grew up in post-Civil Rights America. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended states’ segregation. I thought my childhood was diverse — I grew up among Portagee and Mexican ranchhands, first and second-generation immigrants. The town’s librarian was British, and a local family adopted two children from Korea. My favorite teacher was Apache, and one of my classmates was Hawaiian. I attended a school funded as reservation education, but it never occurred to me, as a child, to question why there were no black students.

What did I think, that “they” lived elsewhere? Happily? Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance just like me?

Considering that I got to feel like a patriot beneath the red, white, and blue as a child indicates that my own ancestry passed into privilege. I dislike that word, by the way, but it flags a social truth that being white in America is an automatic advantage. Getting to love my nation and believe in “justice for all” is an advantage. Although I dislike the use of labels, let’s sit with its social discomfort of white privilege a moment and examine its current definition:

Social privilege is a special, unearned advantage or entitlement, used to one’s own benefit or to the detriment of others. These groups can be advantaged based on social class, age, disability, ethnic or racial category, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and religion.

Groups, tribes, clans — throughout history, people have pooled resources for advantages to survive. Nothing can be crueler to a human being than another human being. So, when will we learn that leveraging advantages takes away from others so we can have our gain? Can we use our current advantage to lift others up? Can we meet on common ground where no one group has a high spot? What does justice for all look like?

In a NYT podcast series called 1619, host Nikole Hannah-Jones discusses her irritation as a young person with the American flag her black father maintained despite low-paying jobs, no recognition for his military service, and living in a state with high violence against blacks. By high school, she said,

“This big pristine American flag flying in the front of our yard was deeply embarrassing to me and I didn’t understand why he would feel that much love for a country that clearly did not love him. I felt this way all through high school. I was no longer standing for the national anthem. I had stopped saying the pledge allience. And really, throughout most of my adult life, I mean clearly I know I’m American, I was born here, every family member for generations back that I know were all born here, but I never felt that I could claim fully that I was an American.”

That is the shadow life to my own. While I was feeling something as a young American, my black compatriots were feeling nothing. Yet, Nikole goes on to shift her thinking, to come to understand her father’s relationship with the flag. It’s a powerful and authentic look at the formation of a “free” nation whose declaration of independence failed to uphold its core principles. She began to realize that black people like her father believed in the possibility of American ideals.

No longer can I deny what my country is — a nation built on the backs of race-slavery. Not just slavery, but slavery based on a color divide. How does that happen? You have to dehumanize the role of the slave. In doing so, you equally dehumanize the role of the slaver. The society that accepts slavery, putting profit before people dehumanizes itself. The government that establishes law to hold this system in place is injust.

Thus the cycle began with the first boatload of African slaves to American soil. Dark-skinned men and women were easy to classify as others. Privilege went to those who were Christian, white, and land-holders. Never mind whose land they had. In America, justification substituted justice. You cannot have genuine respect for people when you justify stealing land, stealing a workforce, and establishing wealth that demands more land and more workforce. The trickery involved is mind-blowing. The wealthy could not settle lands further west on their own, so they set up governmental acts such as homesteading, and they normalized “manifest destiny.” They convinced the middle class who wanted homes and economic opportunities for their families that they were doing God’s will to swarm like locust, kill the buffalo, and dispossess the tribes.

Generational lies. Societal norms that are abnormal to human nature. Dehumanization. Criminalization. Racism is built in the shadows of institutions that favor the ultimately privileged. The rest of us scramble for scraps of privilege to survive, willing to tear at each other’s throats, so we don’t stop to think about the spell we are under. We place our hands on our hearts and think we are free and just. But we are all chained to this ugliness of slavery, and the whip still cracks over our heads. Think I’m wrong? In America, our masters are the capitalists. We fear economic decline more than we do a deadly virus. Over 100,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, but our masters have us fearing the demise of Wall Street. They gamble with our money, our jobs, our lives.

I love my nation. I love my fellow Americans no matter how broken we might be (or how whole we pretend we are). And we are broken! We are not well. We need to heal. All of us. We need to acknowledge what slavery did to us, how it permeates generations of thinking, feeling, and reacting. If you don’t believe we still employ a slave mentality, consider this: we have called out the National Guard to protect property. I repeat, we have called out the National Guard to protect property. Because looting is a higher crime than murdering black people in America. A black person is a discarded property. Do you see it? Do you see how that is the slave mentality of valuing economic gain over a dehumanized population?

Let me explain to you why black lives matter. Because they are human, too! We are all one human race. Many colors. Many genders. Many sexual orientations. Many different favorite foods. Many sizes. Many ways to express spiritual connections. Many ways to dance. Many voices to sing. Many languages. Many heartaches. Many joys. Justice for all means black lives matter. Fuck off if you’re going to tell me white lives matter, too. I know they do because I have experienced the empowerment of knowing my life has value. I have held my hand over my heart and believed every word I recited to the flag. I’m white. I’ve been bullied, I’ve known shaming because of my body type, I’ve experienced persecution as a pagan and unfriending as a believer of Christ. I have secrets I won’t tell you. I have fears. But never have I known what it is to be black.

I write this as law enforcement shoot rubber bullets, pepper spray, and tear gas canister at people of all color in my nation this week. Some are claiming white supremacists are agitating the protests. Others say it’s Antifa extremists and suggest that even foreign powers could take advantage of the chaos. Most protestors gather peacefully despite what the media might be showing. In Minnesota, so many have gathered as to overwhelm the entire police force. The root cause, no matter the extremism slithering into the violent expression is slavery.

Emancipation is when black lives have the same American experiences as white lives. When we express genuine respect for one another and acknowledge the mutual wounds of slavery, then we can heal together. Then we can say all lives matter. Then a black child in a small classroom in Anytown, America, can feel the same pride I once did reciting, “…and justice for all.” If you want to know what you can do, please read, For Our White Friends Desiring to Be Allies by Courtney Ariel, read black literature, and support diverse voices in writing. The compelling nature of our weekly collections is rooted in the comingling of diverse voices. All are welcome to write here!

And there is a powerful message in Jimmy Kimmel’s post from May 29. Please watch this through to the end. You will see a scripted video that shows the power of a human story. I also recommend that you watch the documentary The Thirteenth. It’s available on Netflix. Let’s be the ones who live up to the perfect ideals of our imperfect founding.

June 4, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about justice for all. It does not have to take place in America. Injustice exists anywhere. What is the story behind justice for all? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by June 9, 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.

The Injustice of Forgotten History by Charli Mills

Heat from the foundries blasted Big John every day. Sweat froze to his body when he walked home to Cliff where Sweet Mo had stew and thimbleberry cobbler waiting. He wore massive leather boots, tailor-made because he could afford them. Mo sewed colorful calico dresses and on Sunday they lifted the rafters with Jesus and friends at the African Methodist Episcopal. When the nation passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, escaped slaves and freed people knew slave-hunters would avoid the rough and remote Copper Country.

One day, when there’s justice for all, we’ll record these erased black histories.

May 28: Flash Fiction Challenge

Fog thick as chainmail hides the Quincy No. 2 Shaft-Rockhouse from view. Earlier, temperatures rose to summer peak levels, and I planted most of my seedlings, sweating and swatting mosquitos. Lady Lake Superior must have fussed in some way because now I’m in a cloak of moisture I need a sword to cut through. Too hot, too fast, I’m thinking, and the Lake’s cold waters rebelled. It’s both disconcerting and fascinating to think that the lake controls the weather, not the other way around.

As a writer, I seek contradictions.

Driving past the Quincy Mine, I lose all concept of time and season. My radio says it’s “top of the hour, 3 p.m.” My head thinks nightfall. I’m dressed for summer but have a chill. I begin to play a word association game as I drive out to Boston Location where my daughter lives (because I also seek more seedlings). The game goes like this — pair two things that don’t go together. Champagne and hard-rock. Rosemary and sewage. Duck down and firecrackers. Sleep and square-dancing.

Contradictions make us pause. In writing, they can lead somewhere. Where, well, I don’t know, you have to follow. That’s the fun of exploring opposition — it’s new territory you get to make up. You can create sensory contradictions based on touch, taste, smell, or sound. It’s like clashing colors. What can you make of the awful pairing lavender and sewage? Maybe a story begins with receding sewage after a flood, and an old woman recovers her prized lavender bush. Or maybe a street chef introduces a new rosemary delight on the streets of NYC and sales rise despite the wafting smell of city sewage below.

Or you can mix it up — pair something hard to something that tastes sweet like a two-by-four and cotton candy, concrete, and peppermint ice cream, or a steel door and licorice. You can pair actions — waltzing and milking cows, yachting and digging ditches, or weaving and kite-running. Do you notice your mind pondering the differences, trying to find connections? That’s the key. Your mind might say these things don’t go together,, but it will also try to figure out how they could. Your task as a writer is to find a story to tell who did what somewhere. Contrast gives you clues.

This word game I play started out as a cliche buster. Back in the ’90s, I set up the challenge to eradicate cliches in my writing. The idea was to rethink a cliche. For example, if a character was as excited as a kid in a candy shop, how could I deconstruct the cliche and rebuild a fresh analogy? That’s when I began to take notice that I could come up with clever ideas by finding contrasts rather than comparisons. What contrasts with kid? A hummingbird, a hermit crab, a gangster. What would excite each? Like a hummingbird in a petunia; a hermit crab in a bronze shell; a gangster in a Coupé de Ville.

You can do the reverse finding something that doesn’t go with a candy shop. A mall, a mineshaft, a root cellar. Who would be excited to be in such places? Like a shoe addict in a mall; a spelunker in a mineshaft; a raccoon in a root cellar. Playing the contrast word game gives you an endless supply of possibilities.

Go ahead and write cliches when you draft because they point to emotions. Later, read through and flag them for revision, clarifying the purpose of each cliche (to show excitement, for example). Think about the situation your character is in and fit the tone. A kid in a candy shop is lighthearted. A raccoon in a root cellar might be destructive. A spelunker in a mineshaft might signal an adrenaline rush. Better yet, try to fit your setting. A raccoon in a root cellar would fit a country setting, but it could also produce humor in a cityscape. A spelunker in a mineshaft fits particular regions.

Cliches came up this week in my studies. We are going into finals already, and my thesis submission of 15,000 words is due in two weeks. I have to get my current Contemporary Fiction course professor to sign off on my readiness. He’s been rapid-firing different craft elements at us for eight weeks, along with a few extra optional lessons. He’s tough (and determined I learn perfect past tense and). Nothing slides past him. When he gave the optional cliche assignment, I thought of my cliche buster trick.

That’s how I came to be driving to Boston Location pairing words that don’t match up. Like fog thick as chainmail. What else could be thick (other than the cliched pea soup)? Poor-rock, cowboy coffee, cast-iron, a Harry Potter Book. Some of those words don’t feel right. Pea soup has a murkiness too it. A Harry Potter Book creates no connection. Interestingly, cast iron and chain mail fit the metallic feel I wanted to impart to the fog.

Wordsmithing is part of what we do. This week we are going to create our own prompts by pairing two contradictions. I’ve held similar challenges in the past, and it’s one we will do again.

A few ranching updates — on Mondays, D. Avery’s Ranch Yarns have come to life at the Saddle Up Saloon. It’s like one of those places where everyone knows your name with a western flair. It’s also a place where characters get to have their say. If you want Kid and Pal to converse with you in a skit, or interact with one of your characters, send her an email: averydede.1@gmail.com. It’s meant to be a fun gathering place for writers.

On Tuesdays, we have a line up of eight columnists who have varying topics of interest. Follow H.R.R. Gorman for history, Anne Goodwin for what to read, Bill Engleson for what old films to watch, Ann Edall-Robson for recalling the pioneers of the past, Susan Sleggs for veteran stories, Norah Colvin for activities to do with young children, Sherri Matthews for a memoirist’s look at those who help others, and Ruchira Khanna for healing through writing.

If you want to hang out with other Carrot Ranchers from the virtual community and from World Headquarters in Hancock, Michigan, join me on Facebook in a private group. I’ve been excited (as a blue heron in frog pond) to connect writers from the Keweenaw to writers from around the world. You can participate as little or as much as you’d like. On Mondays, we set goals; Tuesdays we share anything of interest to the group; Wednesdays we open up to questions and answers; Thursdays have been intermittent video readings; Fridays is game day. Because it’s a private group, you do need to ask to join and answer one question (so I know you are affiliated with Carrot Ranch as a writer, reader or lurker). Join up at Carrot Ranchers.

The idea for these new features and a FB group at Carrot Ranch came from a need to keep the writing community engaged during the uncertainties of a global pandemic. I hope you will interact with the columnists and reach out to D. to be counted at the Saloon. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know we will be writing into it. Stay connected, stay creative, and stay safe!

May 28, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story using two words that contradict. Examples include champagne and hard-rock; rosemary and sewage; duck down and firecrackers; sleep and square-dancing. Use one of these or make up your own. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by June 2, 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.

Moon Dust and Boat Wood by Charli Mills

Two young star-gazers giggle, floating on boat wood lashed into a stationary raft. Papa salvaged the lumber from a shipwreck on the beach, tethered it to the edge of the pond. On his one night off, he’d settle with them, tracing stars in the sky. A full lunar light beams overhead, dimming the Milky Way and illuminating the rock house that towers above the miners’ homes and woods. The girls wait for Papa to emerge from the trail to the mines, repeating constellations he taught them. They open their mouths to moon dust floating downward. It tastes like copper.

May 21: Flash Fiction Challenge

When I was a young child, I believed my Great-grandma Fernandes was a day older than me. Never mind, I was barely able to fill out the smallest of cowgirl boots, and she had wrinkles galore. My elder was born Clara Irma Kincaid in 1903, to a Scots rancher whose family pushed cattle from Missouri to California during the Gold Rush, and a Basque justice of the peace in a little town called Tres Pinos. They were a Catholic family, and Clara was smack in the middle of 16 children. She married William Michael Fernandes, a Portugues cowboy, and they had half as many children as her parents. My dad was one of three children, and I’m an only child. We’ve been on the DNA reduction plan, evidently.

The reason I thought Great-grandma was a day older than me is that she was born May 20 and me May 21. Yes, today is my birthday. I have a bottle of Cava, a proper cake from Roy’s, and a kayak. After I water the growing gardens, I’m headed to Lady Lake Superior for the day to test drive the new Tribe (hopefully, I don’t test the new life vest, but I’m prepared). Cake and cava are later for the sunset.

Born into a buckaroo family (sixth-generation) on the cusp of Taurus/Gemini under the laidback number one hit of 1967 (Groovin’), I rode horses before I could walk. Like any ranch child, I was tossed on the back of every critter that romped, including goats. At some point, I must have licked one because I can’t stand the taste of goat cheese. I had my own pony, Barney, by the time I was three. Ponies are good starter horses because they provide a shorter fall and lighter weight when they step on you. And Barney threw me and stepped on me several times. I was five when I got my first horse, a mustang named Acorn. Sadly, he went blind.

That fact recently resurfaced as I’m drafting Danni’s story for my MFA thesis. My peers and I are writing query letters, and an agent who interests me likes animals in novels but in unusual ways. When I wrote the letter, I included that the protagonist had a blind horse. It was a surprise to me — often, the author is the last to know of these details. I remembered Acorn and how we didn’t ship him off to be dog food (a reality in the not so distant past of ranching). In fact, most of our horses came to us as auction rescues. Buckaroos are known for horse skills and can rehabilitate troubled horses that others dumped for low prices at the sale yards.

We gave Acorn a second life, turned out with the main cattle herd in the huge grassy pastures on the Paicines Ranch (this was definitely not our ranch, but where I spent a good chunk of childhood as my grandfather, Clara’s son, was the foreman for many years). Paicines was an old Mexico land grant spread where Clara’s grandparents ran sheep during the Gold Rush. I didn’t have any ’49 miners in the family, but kin who followed to feed them. In those pristine valleys, Acorn stayed with the cattle — mane and tail growing long, walking in circles. I’ve been researching blind horses and discovered that they are ridable. Once blind, if they trust their rider, they can still be ridden. It’s the going blind that causes the greatest difficulties. And, some interesting details to carry out a plot.

At its core, Miracle of Ducks is about trust and loyalty. Secondary characters help stretch the protagonist along her arc and further the plot points. Danni’s horse, Blackjack, was a dink Ike picked up cheap. Dann had the skills to soothe the horse and built a trusting relationship before realizing the animal was going blind. This has opened up much of my western heritage, passing my experiences and stories to Danni. It also brings back much of the language associated with my roots, which is a challenge as a writer. I know what is accurate, but my peers (my first readers) do not. Therefore, I have to find a balance between authenticity and clarity. The horse becomes an analogy and a canvas for me to paint the western colors of people and place.

I’m learning the deeper meaning of what writing 99-words has taught me — writing is exploratory. When we arrange words to tell a story, we shift our own perspective and uncover new details. This is what I love about creativity — the unexpected discoveries. I also think this is what artists fear losing. If we have to color within the lines or punctuate according to the rules we might miss the treasure we know is buried in our process. The difference between pantsers and plotters is how much of that creativity you allow to drive. Plotters try to control it, and pantsers ride with the wind.

In the end, you need to be both. You won’t lose your gems or that connectivity to the creative impulse if you learn the rules of craft or plot our novels. A plot, by the way, is also a work in progress. There’s flexibility for discovery. In workshops, we have to be as open to play as we are here at Carrot Ranch. When a professor assigns us a curveball –write our next scene as a dream sequence — you learn to just do it. When your peers suggest structural, plot, or character changes, you give it a go. You don’t have to keep the revisions, but I’ve found, just as I have with regular practice of writing 99-words, that I’m a more nimble writer — a plantser.

It’s good to reach a level where you are no longer offended by critique. Some people have a better page-side manner, and I firmly believe that critique must be productive. A poor delivery of good points doesn’t help a writer grow. But learning how to deliver feedback with kindness will make you better at your craft and appreciated among your peers. Now, when I go into workshop, I feel excited. I know my peers are going to challenge me on clarity and craft. I know they will let me know what is working, but they will also make suggestions for improvement. Going back to the scene for revision no longer feels painful as it once did.

I have a blind horse to lead the way.

(Disclaimer: I am not 100 today! But what a gift to live 99 years plus one.)

May 21, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about 100 candles. What do they light, and why? Think about contrast or symbolism. Are the candles large, small, or stars in the night? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by May 26, 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.

A Light to His Darkness by Charli Mills

A degenerative disease robbed Blackjack of his eyesight. When a moose busted through the pasture fence, fear drove Danni’s blind horse to follow the two old Percherons who embarked on the equivalent of an equine joyride. They had wandered back to the barn without Blackjack. Now it was dark, and Danni could barely see in the murk of the forest on a moonless night. She found him snorting, blind eyes wide. He smelled her and whinnied. “Steady.” He remained still. Each step home was a light to Blackjack. Danni counted one-hundred candles by the time they reached the barn.

May 14: Flash Fiction Challenge

Gardening is dangerous. Plant one seed, and next thing you know, you are planting ten flats. You see a corner of your yard, and you dream about how to fill it, and then you notice another corner and another. Yesterday, I carved out more for a small potager, a plot of the front yard that’s absorbed the dreams of several who have lived on Roberts Street. I’m not the only one who lives dangerously, growing a green thumb. My yard is the product of 120 years of cultivation. All around me is evidence of those who came before.

Someone planted six maple trees when my house went up. Four remain, and they are magnificent in all seasons. Sapping in spring, shading in summer, mulching in fall, and whistling in winter. Birds from blue jays to hummers flit in and out of their branches. The canopy provides an outdoor office when it gets too hot to be inside. Fairies, rocks, and gnomes summer at their bases, providing a new level of gardening intrigue. A few neighbors have caught on to my fairy gardens and have left offerings of their own, including a porcelain heart that hangs in one of the maples.

Toward the front, two low stumps from the maples that didn’t survive this long still offer something to my gardens. A discarded iron cauldron leftover from copper mining days sits on one stump, and the other marks the spot for a pallet compost pile. The cauldron served as my eldest’s moon garden — a massive black pot that overflowed with white varietal flowers. She has moved on to construct bigger spaces, and I get to tinker.

A crescent of thyme remains in the cauldron. My SIL had left a small deer skull with forked antlers when they moved to the country, and in the spirit of playing with fairies, I placed it in the center of the thyme. Carefully, I pulled several strands through each eye-socket and placed a pink rock of feldspar the size of a rosette between its antlers. Mind you, my intent is not to be morbid. Gardening is an art, and I’m attempting to replicate a more colorful homage to Georgia O’Keefe. Google “cow skulls and flowers” to see this visual art in full manifestation. Each corner — or cauldron — of the yard becomes its own individual canvas where staring at bare dirt is akin to writers staring out windows.

The frontmost canvas that abuts Roberts Street is where my eldest and her husband planted a rock and succulent garden to survive the heavy street sandings of winter. The sedum, along with hens and chicks, emerge unscathed ready for a spring bath of rain. The flock has multiplied. Last fall, we dug up the garden behind the succulents, leaving the peonies and lavender, but despite my SIL having rooted out bulbs like a pig seeking truffles, clusters of tulips, alum, and hyacinth remained. This is the head of my potager, a traditional kitchen garden that blends flowers, veg, and herbs, incorporating aesthetics and verticality.

All around my yard, earlier bulbs that former gardeners planted a century ago emerge — crocus, Muscari, hyacinth, glories of the snow, old-fashioned tulips of bold red and yellow, snowdrops, and daylilies. Beneath the shadiest area between maples, woodland trout lilies grow, a North American spring ephemeral. This summer, a few months before the first frost, I plan to hit the shady patch with bee bombs loaded with foxglove seeds. I’m going to fill out other shady areas with ferns. I think this will enhance the centenarians and please the garden fey. The potager will start at Roberts Street and go all the way back to the maples.

Yesterday, I relocated a massive lavender to be front and center of the potager. I dug carefully with a spade and felt when she released, willing to go to her new spot behind the succulents, hyacinth, and a border of newly transplanted dianthus from the abandoned homes on my eldest’s new property. On each side of the lavender, I buried two bare root roses of pastel pink. My SIL dug these up for me from roses he found near the ruins of an old mining house. It had survived on its own for at least 50 years, so I think it will be hardy. Directly behind the lavender, I planted a metal trellis and left a spot for my newly arrived purple Polish spirit clematis. Staggered behind and diagonal to that main feature are the beginnings of two shorter mounds. I planted purple podded peas, white sweet peas, and left room for my moonflowers who tell me it’s too cold yet for their sensitive roots. The back edge of this front canvas has established chives, yarrow, monarda, and two peonies.

When it all gets going, I’ll fill in the blank spots with cosmos, bachelor buttons, lemon queen sunflowers, and milkweed. And that’s only the beginning. See how dangerous it is to start with a single seed?

Today, May 14, my favorite middle child, quarantined on Svalbard, turned 30. She had planned to be out on another days-long scooter excursion, but they ran into trouble with bad weather, avalanches, and melting snow bridges. Her scooter took a 15-meter tumble down a crevasse, end over end, busting the windshield. She and her companions are okay, and remarkably, they were able to retrieve her Viper. When I talked to her on Messenger later, they were safely back in Longyearbyen, and one of the local bands got together to play for her birthday. This was my “emergency room” child, the one who lept off of rooftops, competed as an elite gymnast, and rafted raging rivers in snowmelt.

So, when I told her my kayak had finally arrived, she turned the tables and told me to be safe! I’m not going to do what she would do in a kayak.

For her birthday, she has the privilege of prompting our stories this week. I liked that she phrased her prompt as a question. She has always had an inquisitive mind. Others were asking her, now that she’s thirty if she wants to have children. I laughed, knowing her answer. That’s dangerous territory for an adventurer. Funny how women get asked that question. For me, I’ll stick to the dangers of creative gardening and long-term writing. I’ll play it safe on the waters. And I encourage you all to focus on remaining hopeful.

May 14, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that answers the question, “What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you are in absolute danger?” Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by May 19, 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.

First Response by Charli Mills

One car flipped belly-up in the broad ditch of Kansas grass and sunflowers, the other crumpled to half its original size against the guardrail. Jess instructed her 18-year-old niece to pull over, her voice calm, all thoughts pushed away except for a running list: check breathing, smell for gas, stabilize necks. Plural. There would be multiple people in danger of dying this moment. They called this stretch of highway, “Bloody Kansas” and it was the route her niece would drive now that she had graduated and would begin college in two months. Check breathing, smell for gas, stabilize necks.

May 7: Flash Fiction Challenge

Soil-babies huddle around my radiators and spread across my dining room table. Hopeful colonists rest beneath soft blankets of moist earth in strange plastic pods as if these seeds were the last hope of a dying planet. With tender care, I convey trays of pods from the nighttime safety of my heated home to glorious life-giving sunshine that heats my back porch by mid-afternoon. At night, when the sun dips and the temperatures plummet, I reverse the trip.

Large plastic trays contain pods of blue, black, white, and red. Some are repurposed from the purchase of annual plants. Some are recycled mushroom trays. Others are fancy containers from the times last year when my daughter and I waited hours for handcrafted orders of maki, sashimi, and unagi from Sky Sushi. Ah, those were the days. The before days. The days before the owners returned to China in December for winter break and have been unable to return to their business on the Keweenaw. The after days is why we need the hope of soil babies.

I can’t call these intrepid garden Argo Sailors, seedlings or seeds because they are neither. They are the stuff hope is made of, something between a wish and a reality. All I can see is soil and humid plastic film carefully protecting the germination. I await signs of emergence. Then, I will know I have a hook to hang heavier hope upon.

And what do I hope for?

Health and happiness, mostly. I hope scientists find a cure for a virus that feeds upon human organs, drowning the lungs and clotting the bloodstream. I hope that as scary as circumstances might get, we all learn new ways to be. I hope for learning from the stillness. I hope for gifts in the silence. I hope to hug again, to travel, and be unmasked from every mask I’ve ever worn. I hope to pet my neighbor’s new puppy, to gather friends around the campfire we’re building in the potager, to hunt for agates and run from black flies again. I hope to have guests and readings and workshops in my new home. I hope no one has to fear losing their home. I hope people find their passion in their work and community. I hope simply to live as fully as I can.

Planting is an act. Waiting is learning to be. Watching what grows is acceptance. Wondering why something didn’t grow is curiosity. All this drives me to garden and write and greet the birds that fly overhead to remind me that dinosaurs never went extinct. Peregrine falcon nails a pigeon, and I nod to the velociraptor and albertadromeus syntarsus who continue the dance between predator and prey. Even the greatest carnivore eventually feeds the soil, which grows the vegetation for the quarry. Life is so grand we can’t possibly understand it all — the brain, the emotions, the viruses, and that’s to say nothing of our human constructions, our artifices that make us believe we are in control.

We control nothing. We carry plants from one room to another, chasing life essences and hope.

To an extent, you can control your writing. But where does creativity come from? Why does the same prompt lead us all down divergent paths? You can spark creativity, you can be disciplined to pursue it, but you can’t control the burst. Writers write. I want some of it to be an uncontrollable mystery. The craft, however, we can control in the same way we can build machines and shelters and societies. Writing is a hope of sorts, too. I hope to convey a combination of feeling, meaning, and story, fulling understanding that the receiver will experience my craft and creativity from a different perspective. Yet that is where art rests like soil babies waiting to emerge.

Craft includes a cast of characters. In addition to the protagonist — the showy centerpiece of the garden — a host of secondary characters adds to who the protagonist is or isn’t, and carries the story to its parameters. Secondary characters should feel as real as bachelor buttons. They might not be the climbing purple Polish Spirit clematis, but they give it definition. Secondary characters have a mission. If they don’t push the character arc or progress the plot, pull ’em — they are weeds. You didn’t work hard to craft hope to give it over to apathy. Highlight beauty. Dare to enter the shadows. Make a path. Make secondary characters part of the team.

And if you need hope, find what nourishes — you, your writing, your world. My daughter shared this article about well being during our times. I wasn’t surprised to see “nourish” on the list.

May 7, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story to nourish. The characters can nourish or be nourished. What else can be nourished? A tree? A setting? Does the sunset nourish the soul? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by May 12, 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.

Apples by Charli Mills

Who’ll love the apple trees, Hester wondered as the wagon lurched forward. The youngest, she sat among her family’s meager belongings. A wagon-train of evicted miners trundled past shuttered copper mines.

When they married, Hester told Albert about the company houses and the community orchard. The county sold them the whole abandoned neighborhood on cheap terms. Albert flattened the other houses to grow potatoes. “Don’t harm the apple trees,” she said.

She nourished the trees into widowhood until they packed her up in a station wagon for the old-folks home. “The apples,” she whispered as the car drove away.