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Someone has propped a frail and wrinkled woman on a metal folding chair by the entrance to Earl’s diner. The folds in her face are deep, like an dried apple doll I once saw in a folk museum. Her white hair is piled on her head in Navajo style, and she seems shrunken with thin arms drawn up. Her dress is traditional Navajo and I approach her with the respect due an elder. She’s selling beaded medicine bags and has a few dollars and quarters on her display tray.
“Ya’at’eeh.” I cringe at how poorly I form the greeting in my mouth, hoping she doesn’t take offense.
Softly, I hear her words, clicks and sounds I don’t understand. I kneel beside her and she touches her hand with bent fingers to each bag. I hear clearly, “$45.” More clicks, more explanation in Navajo, her hand on the next bag. “$45.”
I shake my head. I don’t have the money and won’t dishonor her by offering her $10, the only bill I have.
She moves on to each bag, “$45.”
“They’re beautiful. Thank you for letting me look.”
Then her hand with the bent fingers taps the change on her tray. With the saddest eyes she looks right at me and says, “All I have.” If it weren’t illegal to nab a woman from the streets, I’d have picked her right up and given her room in my RV, adopting a forever Grandmother. How could I leave her there? We gaze into each other’s eyes. Wiley old woman. Her black eyes twinkle. She knows she has me.
A younger woman, as in 70 not 240, steps up and begins to talk in Navajo and I’m let off the hook. As I walk away I hear another woman click in the Navajo way, but say in English, “I’d have offered you $35.” I smile. Humor in this culture is subtle, polite and true. Inside Earl’s I catch up with the Hub and we take a table in the full restaurant. Earl’s is the heart of Gallup. No matter which reservation or pueblo you come from, this is where you go. I’m aware that we are the only Anglo faces. Bilagaanas.
What is it to be a minority? Is it about culture, skin tone, position of power? I don’t feel like a minority in Gallup, the Indian Capital of the World. It’s not so much a reflection of my own sense of being, but that I feel welcome although a stranger to these parts. No one stares, or glares. I don’t hear snide comments or feel dehumanization of the other. Those are disconnecting experiences for any marginalized group. Toas musician, Robert Mirabal, sings a sad song about the disconnection that leads to the high rate of suicide among Native youth:
“Can you take it away,
can you kiss it away,
can you take it away,
can you kiss it away…
I’m the mirror that reflects all…”
I’m the mirror that reflects the forgotten and disenfranchised in America. I know what it is to feel alone and broken. I can recognize the brokenness around me in a place called Earl’s. And what I mirror is not disconnectedness, but acceptance, beauty and strength. There’s no pretense here. No one is on a diet, recovering from plastic surgery or driving the latest luxury car advertised for discerning tastes. I don’t know the stories seated around me, but I know they are rich with love and loss, pain and beauty. Beauty, not suffering. Recently a veteran therapist said to me and the Hub, “Pain in life is inevitable; suffering optional.” To me beauty is taking that pain and working it into something meaningful and connected.
Not everyone understands.
Since becoming stranded in Gallup, we’ve come to know that this is a busy RV park for travelers going elsewhere. This is not the destination. We’re the odd ducks who stay longer than a recovery day or two from driving what was once Route 66, America’s Main Street. Gallup emerged as an overnight hub for travelers going to LA from Chicago. Old motels with peeling paint and faded signs line the old Route 66 strip. Trading posts that once attracted tourists on the road now sell Chinese-made knock-offs online. Others sell plastic beads to local artists. A recent RV neighbor told us she went downtown and there was “nothing.” Gallup has nothing is a common phrase we hear from travelers.
Gallup has warrior-artists, people who battle the pain of displacement, irrelevance and poverty to produce visual treasures. I’m razzle-dazzled like the ghosts Mirabal sings of, “The dawn has come…” At Earl’s I anticipate the dawn, the parade of “sellers” as they are called, walking through the diner with their trays full of their art. Different genders, different generations, different clans or tribes. Each artist expresses their own designs, stamps artist initials to distinguish authenticity and politely shows what they have for sale. I’ve become curious to know about their designs, meanings and stories. I’m the literary artist seeking shades of words to tell the tale.
“It’s the sunset,” he leans in to tell me as if disclosing a secret. I’m chatting over a full cup of coffee with the Hopi man who makes pottery in traditional colors (black and white or red and black with white accents). Yet he has a few pieces with non-traditional hues. The one that catches my curiosity is a red clay pot with a band the color of butter circling its middle. Above lavender darkens to purple. Below is a band of dark green like mesquite. When he says it’s the sunset, I see it. I’ve seen it out my RV door. I can’t buy the pot but neither can I un-see the gift of its beauty, the sharing of its intent.
“Hey!” At the loud and friendly voice I turn to see my favorite silversmith. She’s the artist who walks to town on her Goodyear tires, in joking reference to her tennis shoes. KJ was the first artist we met and today she makes us feel like family. “You still here?”
“Still no transmission,” I say and she commiserates with us a moment then shows me her near empty tray.
“Sold ’em all. Ha! I better go make more!”
I’m happy for her. It’s like running into an author with a near-empty box of novels at a book fair. She tells us her son, one of three children serving in the military, has shipped out to Korea. Suddenly, politics have become real. How many patriots has this community lost? I’ve seen the profusion of American flags snapping in the wind at every cemetery we’ve passed on the reservations. Gallup is also known as the Most Patriotic Town in America. Home of Code-Talkers, medal recipients, those who gave their lives in service. It’s not a populist patriotism. It’s dedicated, honorable and non-partisan.
We don’t eat out often and usually we make it our one meal of the day, snacking on cheese and crackers or PBJs later. We don’t come for the food but for the community, the connection. I’ve ordered meatloaf, comfort food. The menu describes it as Spanish, which means it will have a red or green chili sauce. It wasn’t specified. In New Mexico chilis come green or red. You have to be careful. Red is actually mild. Green can blow your head off, especially if it has chunks of bright green chilis. Christmas is not just a holiday in New Mexico; it’s a combination or red and green chilis.
“Excuse me, I overheard you are having transmission troubles,” says the man at the next table, who had been quietly chatting with two women in Navajo. Turns out he’s a diesel mechanic. He and the Hub discuss the transmission and how to solve our problem. I listen, interject and continue to watch the walking art show.
Then my salad arrives and I’m transported to my roots. I’d ordered Thousand Island, a dressing not often on menus. Now I’m tasting the Thousand Island dressing of cowboys, a Depression-era recipe of ketchup thinned with mayo. It then occurs to me that meatloaf is also a Depression-era recipe, extending ground beef with saltine crackers. I once thought I grew up with traditional recipes, but now I’m facing the truth of that tradition — it’s poor food. I don’t mean the food is poor, I mean the people consuming it know poverty. The farmers, the fruit pickers, the Oakies, the Mexicans, the ranch hands, the transient. And I know why I’m struggling with the pain of my situation. It’s the shame of my impoverished roots.
I’m the mirror that reflects all. I realize my comfort in what should be a strange culture. We find comfort in poor food. We’ve gathered in a restaurant to pay money to eat poor food! The foodie in me wants to gasp and run away. Certainly for the same amount of money I can go buy some gourmet ingredients at the Gallup Safeway and whip up something tastier, fancier, richer. Instead, I own it. With absolute relish I eat my runny dressing, dig into my meatloaf with red chili sauce next to mashed potatoes with brown gravy and relish my plain pinto beans.
The beans I savor. Bare naked dried pintos hard boiled at least a day. This was the staple of my childhood kitchen. When you bite a boiled pinto, the fiber releases a distinct bean flavor. My grandmother grew these beans, dried them and boiled them with cloves of garlic. Even better, is to fry these beans in lard, mashing them as they fry. Refried beans. Mana of every westerner. Edward Abbey writes about refried beans and every initiate to the West eats them as the “Edward Abbey diet.” It’s my go-to. I always have a can of refried beans and a packet of corn masa tortillas. A little jack cheese and I’m transported to my comfort zone.
To realize this connection between my childhood and the those around me, I feel like I belong. Earl’s would not be the kind of restaurant I would have written about in my food column years ago, but it has given me a valuable insight. I’m no longer ashamed of my poor food roots. In fact, I didn’t realize I was and I’m pleased to have extracted that awareness. It brings me back to Mirabal when he sings about the burn of conflict we all feel because no one escapes walking in two worlds.
There’s the world represented by the ancient Navajo woman outside, the medicine world. Call it your spirituality, your Christianity, your Muslim or Hindi faith, your atheism. It’s your inner beliefs, your culture, your desire to know who you are and why you are. Mirabal says it has a dance, a language, the music and the arts. It’s all the beautiful things. The other world is that of confusion and computers, of cars and telephones. It’s chaos and yet we need it. He shouts, “Do you feel that burn of conflict? DO YOU FEEL THAT BURN OF CONFLICT? Yeah, I thought you did…” But then he prays for the next generation that their paths and transitions will be smoother, easier and that their fires will burn with hope, desire and love. “Do you feel that love? DO YOU FEEL THAT LOVE…”
Like the Taos People we live with our angels and demons. This is the dance between pain and beauty. Push into the fire, extract your art.
One concern I have as a writer it is that of right. What do I have the right to write? I’m all about diversity in books and making the literary arts available to all cultures. But do I have the right to write about other cultures? This was a topic at BinderCon LA in 2014. The grievous act is that of perpetuating stereotypes in fiction. In memoir, the concern is where does our story end and invade the privacy of another? I’m not sure I have the answer, but I’ll do my best to kneel in respect and try to understand. I’ll look for connections and common ground. I’ll share handshakes, art and laughter. I’ll be me and recognize you.
Writing Ike’s best friend, Michael Robineaux, as Native American initially felt uncomfortable to me. It wasn’t gratuitous. It was to honor a teenage sweetheart whose uncles had all been Marines. We worked together at a state park and he drove me crazy with all his boyish teasing. I didn’t know until later that he had wanted to ask me to be his girlfriend. I would have liked that, but I think we were both shy in that regard. I knew even as a teen that Natives were proud to serve in the military and I wanted to find a way to recognize that, thus my character’s creation.
What helps with developing any character is to think of him or her outside the frame of the story. What was childhood like? Did he move around or never leave until military service? What’s his favorite book, or does he like to fish after work? Is he neat or untidy? Who is his sister? What’s their relationship like? Does he hate a certain band? Why? And what food did he grow up with? What brings him comfort, or feels familiar?
May 4, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about comfort food. How can this familiarity influence a story or character? Is it something unusual, like Twinkies from the 1970s? Or is it something from home, from another place or time? Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by May 9, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published May 10). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Normal Tastes (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Tobasco Sauce?” Danni sat down with Michael and sprinkled her eggs liberally.
“I tasted it once on raw oysters, and it was not pleasant. Might have been the oysters, though.”
“I love fried oysters. If we ever ate out as a kid, we’d go to the Red Lion in Elko. I’d have liver and onions or fried oysters.”
“No hamburger and fries like a normal kid?”
“Nope, but if I’m to eat slimy things I like them peppered, breaded and fried.”
“Hmm.” Michael sprinkled two dots of sauce on his eggs. “Not sure I like food that bites back.”
In my mind, my Aunt Mary McCanles is as stoic as the women painted in pioneer portraits. Grim smile, bun puled taut, knuckles gnarled from the hard work of homesteading folded passively on her lap as she sits in her rocking chair for the camera. The romantic notion that wagons west was the adventure we modern descendants missed, that times were once simpler and more decent is among the big western myths. It’s true, Mary had courage and the wit to survive. She worked hard to raise four sons and an invalid daughter on the vast prairie of Nebraska Territory as a widow.
Maybe it’s because of the romance of the west, or maybe because she was my kin, I find it difficult to access her complexity. She’s human and must have been a woman of dichotomies. Aren’t we all? Life isn’t just about our personalities and the places we live, but it’s the intersection between our worst and best traits on our worst and best days. Add to the mix a harsh land and the reality of migration, and Mary had no chance to be a paper doll from a children’s American West set. She was a flesh and blood, heart and mind, physical and soulful woman.
When I think of stories, I think in terms of what if. To me, that’s where the action unfolds. What if a woman followed her husband and his former mistress out west, migrating to a frontier? What if she left behind a home and family she’d never see again? What if her husband was gunned down one afternoon? What if is the blueprint for the external story.
Internally, motivation becomes a driver. Why would she follow her husband and his former mistress to such a place? How did she cope in a new community? Did his death change her? What about love? Did she love her husband because he was the father of her five children or did she marry out of a sense of duty? The internal story shapes the human triumph or tragedy.
For a work of historical fiction, research collects the facts that detail the story. These details include every day occurrences, such as the life of a pioneer homesteader. They can also give clues to personality through eye-witness accounts or remembrances. Newspaper clippings give tone to decipher attitudes and culture. For example, slavery in the US is unavoidable, reading a southern newspaper from the 1850s. The attitudes of the culture emerge in ads advertising poultry and slave auctions like normal events. They were, for the times.
I’ve talked about the story structure I use to write novels — a W that outlines the hero’s journey. Recently, I heard Matt Damon give an interview about an upcoming movie about the Great Wall in China. He called it a classic hero’s journey. Yet, I think even the tale of a woman on the prairie, sweeping a cracked mud floor and boiling laundry can be a hero’s journey, too. Rock Creek, my historical novel in progress, has five heroes. Two are historically accounted as one hero and one villain. I retell their story through the three perspectives of the women who knew them both and experienced the infamous event at Rock Creek one hot July day in 1861.
Only one character has the full hero’s arc — Sarah Shull. The remaining characters fill in the external or internal stories.
Motives for the two men have been debated over 150 years. I have new ideas on plausible motives to expand the narrow thinking of the men who have written the histories. I also have motives for the women. But Mary’s domestic motive has seemed bland to me — I don’t want to paint her as just another stoic prairie wife. And Sarah Shull, as former mistress, has been given several titillating motives and I didn’t want her to be a mythological soiled dove of the West. Nancy Jane has been vibrant to me because she is what any woman unfettered could have been — capable and feisty.
Writing into Mary’s dark intentions one flash a few weeks ago, I hit on an important plausible motive behind her pursuit of Cobb. It continued to worm its way into my imagination to give more fertile ground to consider motives of Sarah. How might Sarah’s knowledge of Mary’s motives shadow her own? That led to me thinking about Sarah’s friendship with Nancy Jane. After spending a weekend with a McCanles cousin whose research and opinion I respect, I was in a brain churning process. Do you know that feeling? That mind-space where you go over your internal and external stories trying to dig deeper for that coveted surprise you know is there, somewhere between the details?
Then a conversation with a trusted friend who knows the full story (something I protect from historians because it is a bombshell and will rock the Wild Bill World) led to a moment of inspiration. You might say, I had a perfect storm this week. When I sat down to tap out that inspired idea, 5,443 words later I actually had my motives emerge fully and I had my ending. That might sound odd — to find an ending to a historical story where we know how it ends. But of course, who would read it if I told the story from start to finish? That’s why novels are never a straight forward telling of the external story.
My W has been mapped out for Rock Creek. I have worked hard to fill in historical gaps; I scrapped the first half of the book; expanded the Nebraska accounts; and wrote Sarah Shull later in life. However, I’ve been stumped as to how to weave the three women’s perspectives to show the men in action and use Sarah’s reflections in old age. It all came together in this new ending I wrote. What blew me away is that Sarah had one last secret for me — a motive of her own I had never considered. And it would not have come to me if I hadn’t allowed myself to think of Aunt Mary in a darker way.
While breakthroughs seem to abound this month for both my novels in progress, I hoping for a breakthrough in my homeless situation. I have come to enjoy my RV with my little office, couch, kitchen, bedroom, shower and toilet. I don’t feel so “homeless” with such basic needs met, yet we are displaced and have to move on by April because the tourist season at Zion begins in earnest and rates go up beyond my earnings as a writer. The Hub was accepted into a VA vocational program and we continue to battle the stress of his PTSD, he being more stressed than me. Progress is slower than our timeline to move. And we have no way to move our big RV, something we said we’d figure out. Well, we’re still figuring! I’ll hope for some perfect storm of inspiration.
The first anthology is making its way back to our capable and talented Trail Boss & Editor, Sarah Brentyn next week. She and all the Rough Writers have been patient and I appreciate that. The Raw Fiction series is meant to be a platform for our anthologies, expanding the literary community here as one that discusses as well as performs feats of raw literary art. The synergy is evident in what we write individually and collectively among such diverse writers. Once we have Volume 1 under our belts, we’ll invite new Rough Writers to join our core of ranch hands and continue to grow.
With all this movement and wandering (imaginatively) across the plains of Nebraska Territory, I can’t help but think of migration. Immigration dominates world news as refugees seek asylum, countries ponder how to balance humanitarian efforts with safety protocols, and the US slams shut its borders and evicts “illegal” immigrants from our neighbor, Mexico. The announcement of 15,000 new jobs for border control is not one that has many cheering new jobs in America. What would we have done had Trump lived 150 years ago and was chief of the Plains Indians? Would the west have known such a migration as the pioneers? Would we have an Indigenous west, open to Mexico, closed to Americans? And we just discovered 7 new earth-like planets only 39 light years away! What will future global migrations look like?
February 23, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a migration story. It can imagine the dusty or arctic trails of the frontiers past or look to the travel across the galaxy. What issue about modern migration bans might influence an artistic expression in a flash? Migrate where the prompt leads you.
Respond by February 28, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published March 1). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Leaving for the West (from Rock Creek) by Charli
“Pa? Are you leaving us?”
Mary glared at her husband. To avoid the new administration’s secession policies, Cobb was leaving his sheriff’s post. Her family and friends no longer visited, political beliefs dividing neighbors and kin. “Answer the boy, Cobb. He’s your son. He deserves your words, not the gossip to come.”
“Monroe, anyone asks, tell them I’m seeking gold with the Georgians.”
“What about our farm, Pa?”
“Sold, son. We’ll have a new farm out west. Uncle Leroy will bring you all out once it’s settled.”
“Out west? Where they sent the Cherokee?”
“Further west, son. The frontier.”
Hills old as dirt. Rocks ancient as time. Mesas drawn from memories of dinosaurs. It’s old around here. Solid as a rock.
Hillsides mess with our sense of time and solidity. Geologically speaking, the wrinkled hills of debris at the foot of mesas and canyons in Zion National Park are newborns. Water carves rivulets into canyons so deep and serpentine that many of these winding features miles long went unnoticed by surveyors for years. If you believe the canyons rock-solid, I have some alternative facts for you. But before we get to fiction, let examine a few facts from science:
- Zion’s geological features are indeed old: 250 million years old.
- The sandstone features with cliffs over 3/4 of a mile high were once sand dunes. Sand dunes!
- Water shapes the area’s stunning geology, including hidden canyons and the winding Virgin River.
- Water is also trapped in sandstone, forming a weeping feature that takes water 1,000 years to emerge.
- The park’s 229 square miles includes wide mesas, narrow sandstone canyons, seeps, springs and waterfalls.
The Zion features are not alive with music; instead they pulse with mud-pushed rocks, reshaping debris heaps. The process accelerates any time water joins the mix. Mud becomes a powerful sludge, and sometimes entire hillsides calve like a glacier. Other times a trickle of rocks tumble across trails and roads.
And some times there’s a rock big and brown in the middle of the road.
Geology reminds me that life is not static. We never have the same day. We never truly have an ideal image of ourselves in the mirror. We never fix the meatloaf exactly the same way as last year. Even the institutions we believe unshakeable are not the same from year to year. Everything shifts and sheds like Zion rubble.
Mostly the process equates to the movement of sand. It’s over the years we notice the ravages of grain — the days’ activities are noticeably different; the face in the mirror has aged; meatloaf had a makeover; governments erode. Sometimes, though, the rock crashes down in an instant and we are shaken by the change. We prefer the illusion displaced sand gives us. Sand seems easier to sweep away. And we do. But that rock — that rock in the road cannot be ignored. It calls us to change or be changed.
Rocks always take us by surprise. We know they exist in the sludge of life, but we always believe we can dodge the big ones. We do what we can to avoid the dangerous slopes where we know rocks lurk. One might acknowledge vulnerability. How often I’ve heard many people say, “I know, I know, we’re all just one paycheck away from being homeless.” But that’s just a fear many use to stay in an unsatisfactory job, town or relationship. We settle and take our chances with the sand, avoiding rocks.
When it does happen to someone — that rock of homelessness — we shore up our own crumbling edges with notions that the person struck by the rock of unexpected change must have done something. “That’s right, they asked for it. They were digging where they shouldn’t have dug.” People say those things to justify walking past a panhandler on the street. They justify not giving money because it would be spent on drugs or drink, without thinking to buy a meal or a blanket. They justify dehumanizing the homeless.
Let me introduce you to a few faces besides mine. There’s the divorced woman whose husband hid the assets and at 62 she has no employability. There’s the man and his wife and their two sons who can’t come up with first, last and deposit on a rental so they camp while raising the money that never seems to be enough. There’s the woman kicked out of a motel room after the landlord beat her. He. Beat. Her. She lost her room and now sleeps in a tent a church gave her. There’s the veterans in their trucks, belongings piled in the passenger seat and a bed in the back beneath a camper shell.
And the boy with the big grin blowing out seven candles on two cupcakes for his birthday. He’s in his third shelter, or transitional motel room. The rock that hit his parents was an unrenewed lease. The apartment complex preferred adults to seven-year-old boys with no where else to go. Once you have no where else to go, the complex web of family homelessness awaits like Shelob’s lair. More rocks dislodge — most shelters separate men from women and children; shelters have rigid rules that interfere with jobs; some shelters have a lottery system. There’s long-term motels with their own set of dangers and frustrations.
This boy’s mama dreamed of a kitchen. She dreamed of cooking. I know, Sweet One, I know. I miss my kitchen most. I miss everything that a woman creates in a kitchen — meals and memories. Sweet One is a daughter to me. I’ve known her for nine years, ever since she was a teen working where I worked. I respect her privacy, but I want you to know this is a good woman, a good mama. She and her family got hit hard by one rock after another and they do not have the normal familial safety net. Adult orphans.
That can be hardest, which is why I asked her if the Hub and I could be Nana and Papa to her boy, Our Boy.
After six months, Our Boy, his Dad and Sweet One got an apartment. Our Boy has been doing well in school, although he had some scary days when he was taking public transportation to school, arrived late and got locked out. A seven-year-old alone in the city! Sweet One nearly lost her mind over that one and the school worked with her to make Our Boy safer in his transitions. Think about the dedication of these working parents to get their son to school every day. Together we believe in him going to college.
Carrot Ranch is hosting a Welcome Home J-Family house-warming for Sweet One and her family. Between now and February 28, there will be a Wish List on Amazon for the family. When families become homeless, they often lose most their possessions. I’ve heard people say, “It’s good to purge.” But unless you’ve had to get rid of your personal and household belongings, you couldn’t know the sorrow. Or the frustration when you want to cook after getting re-homed and are missing what’s needed.
At first Sweet One was modest and asked for three items: microwave, muffin pan and a crock-pot. After some nudging she got into the spirit of dreaming! She and Our Boy dreamed of waffles, zucchini zoodles and omelettes shaped like hearts. Then she thought out how to set up her kitchen, and I added cookbooks. Could I ask you to share this house-warming far and wide? If you can, and are moved to help one who got hit by the homelessness rock, consider buying her an item on her list. Her son is seven if you want to send him books, too. Let’s give them a landslide of a house-warming!
It was hard for me to think about my character’s homeless event this past summer even though I knew I wanted to hit Danni with that rock. I had already written a scene where she is unable to access Ike’s account right after he leaves for Iraq. Often these banking issues arise and when the spouse is deployed, they can be tricky to sort out. Using my own experiences and understanding of how easy it was for banks to foreclose on military families, that becomes Danni’s event.
Seeing what is happening in our government seems like a catastrophic event in the US, but some of us had earlier hits to know the whole thing had become unstable for those not billionaires many years before the orange rock hit DC. Although why those hardest hit would elect a demolition man to office seems counter-productive. Maybe they just wanted to see a rock-slide hit everybody else, too.
February 2, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a rock in the road. It can be physical, adding to a plot twist, or it can be metaphorical for a barrier or hardship. Go where you find the rock.
Respond by February 7, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published February 8). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Midnight Rock (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Michael knelt at the bumper, shining his flashlight. “Hell of rock you hit, Danni.”
“It was an easy target, squatting there in the middle of the road like a legless grizzly.”
Michael shined the powerful light up the canyon wall. “Can’t see anything else unstable.”
“A rock just for me.” She slumped her head on the hood. “Ike loved this truck.”
“He still does.”
“Yeah, Ike’s in some hell-hole, pining for his truck!”
“He’s enduring because of what he has back home, Danni. You, the truck, the dogs.”
“Too bad he won’t have a home to come home to.”
Seeking icicles, I’ve returned to Zion Canyon. Red walls stained with black mineralization are capped with white and pink peaks as the sandstone fades. It doesn’t truly fade; it’s layers of sediment baked in earth’s oven and uplifted in turmoil, or perhaps triumph. Miles up the canyon, a river bubbles out of a cavern and repeats it’s process of carving. Upstream the rock layer is hard and cuts so steep that 16 miles of water touches each rock side. It’s called The Narrows and it’s hikeable, if you call wading and swimming a hike. Perhaps in summer when the desert turns on heat of its own.
For now I zip my fleece and scan the red rock walls for ice.
Each time I return to Zion, I learn something new. The black streaks, for example, are the tracks of rainwater. I can see icicles far up the canyon walls, but none along the trail. It was warmed up on Mars since last week. Closer scrutiny of the icicles reveal they are no longer ice, but white shadows. A new mineralization. Rain leaves traces of black, and ice leaves outlines of white. Ghost-cicles. A third color, that of algae-green pools, has gone missing. Evidently the famous Emerald Pools are not such in winter. I’ve climbed two miles and found nothing but fades.
My quickened breath reminds me I should hike more often. I say so to The Hub and he grunts that walking would be better. Some parts of the trail are so steep I can’t step my heel down, and I climb on tippy-toes. When the trail dips downward I breathe easier, but take tiny steps like a scrambling crab so I don’t slip on the sandy mud that sweeps across the paved trail of red cement. Somewhere along the trail my second wind kicks in and my leg muscles loosen up enough that my steps feel more confident. Never a sprinter; I’m built for endurance.
Disappointed to not find any icicles or gem-like pools, I see the sun lighting up a peak of white that towers like a glowing ember above the walls of red cast in perpetual shadow with the low winter sun. I take a few photos and notice a bird. That’s when the enormity of scale hits me. These sandstone cliffs are nearly a mile high. That I can even see a winged creature that isn’t some gigantic dragon is remarkable. Pines look like scrubs, caverns like pockmarks, and boulders bigger than buses like stepping stones. Until something appears against the cliffs, the mind is willing to believe they aren’t really the tallest sandstone features in the world.
Because I can see this bird and it’s flying near the rim, I realize it must be huge to be seen. A bald eagle? No white head or tail. A golden eagle? Maybe. I watch it glide against the red rock, approaching a fissure in the face. It disappears into a cave. Yet another thing to fade before my eyes on this hike. Ice, algae and now a bird. Eagles build impressive nests high up on ledges, but this bird went into the wall. One bird in all of Zion does that. And I’m once again breathless — this time because I realized I just saw a rare California Condor, the largest bird in North America.
Seeing this soaring giant of Zion brings up an issue of names. The Hub says we saw condors all the time in north Idaho. Another tourist, joins me in the watch and the bird emerges. He thinks it’s a buzzard. Vultures, buzzards and condors are all raptors and different as bald eagles from goldens. Science is specific about how it names species so we get it all sorted out and the three of us marvel at the rare sight.
If only human names were easy to apply and differentiate. Over time, history and historical writers can struggle with names. Take the names Sarah and James. These two names create challenges for me in my writing of Rock Creek. Sarah is the name of both Cobb’s former mistress and his brother’s wife. Cobb’s full name was David Colbert McCanles, and his nickname was Cobb. But no one recorded the nicknames of the two Sarahs. Since one is the protagonist, I kept her name Sarah, and gave Cobb’s sister-in-law the probable familiar name of Sally.
Ah, but the James names are more numerous. Wild Bill Hickok’s full name was James Butler Hickok. He wasn’t dubbed Wild Bill until after the Civil War. Historical accounts say that Cobb teased the young man for his protruding upper lip and called him Duck Bill. But why Bill? One biographer thinks James went by the name Bill, his father’s name. When Cobb’s brother gave his statement and accused three men of murdering his brother and two ranch hands, he was recorded as calling Hickok, Dutch Bill, probably because he didn’t know Hickok by any other name. The one writing out the statement must have heard “Dutch” rather than “Duck.” If you don’t know the joke, Duck Bill doesn’t make sense.
But that’s not all. In addition to James Hickok, the other Pony Express employee on duty at Rock Creek the day of the incident was James Brinks. Brinks also had the nickname Doc, not because he was a physician but most likely because he worked on the steamship docks along the Missouri. He, along with the station manager (Horace Wellman), and Hickock were accused of murdering Cobb and his two men — James Gordon and James Woods. Four of the six men involved in this hotly debated historical incident were named James.
Joseph Rosa, Hickok biographer, writes:
“No single gunfight, with the possible exception of the Earp-Clanton fight in October, 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona, has caused so much controversy as the Hickok-McCanles affair at Rock Creek on the afternoon of Friday, July 12, 1861.”
Families, historians, State Historical societies, books, movies, magazine editors and western writers have all squared off over the years into factions. I name these the White Hat/Black Hat factions because each side believes to understand what happened that day you have to place a good-guy white hat on one and a bad-guy black hat on the other. You can read the nasty digs historians have given one another in their books or articles. I’ve interviewed McCandless family historians who tell me Hickock was short, mean and the devil on earth. I’ve been interviewed by a writer of a modern documentary who only wanted facts that painted McCanles in the worst way possible. Joseph Rosa offers the most compelling account because of his research into Hickok, but he fails to give the same diligence for McCanles.
No one considered the women’s perspectives.
Several historians did take an interest in Sarah Shull (often miss-naming her Kate Shell), but only due to intrigue over a perceived lover’s triangle between her, McCanles and Hickok. And sadly, no one even tried to research Jane Holmes’ name, only known as the common-law wife of Horace Wellman. To understand the Rock Creek Affair, you need to understand the men through the women’s lens. You need to understand the women. This may shock the history of the West, but women had motives, too.
After my own shock of seeing a California Condor in flight (you, too can see the spec in my photo for this prompt), I remembered that what appears and fades before us can have a sort of non-verbal language that is life. We might set out to see one thing and see another. The best we can do is try to name our experience. Names are such a human attribute. What is in a name?
December 15, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) explore the importance of a name within a story. It can be naming an experience, introducing an extraordinary name, or clarifying a name (who can forget Who’s on First). Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by December 20, 2016 to be included in the compilation (published December 21). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
His Name Remembered (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Nancy Jane shoveled dirt over her baby’s nameless grave. Her Pa retreated to the barn and more liquor. Hang up that suit first, she reminded him.
That man, that awful man who played his fiddle over the open grave, as if she wanted to share her sorrow uninvited. That man who hauled her father to the gravesite behind his horse all because Pa stole a suit in his drunken sorrow. Who did he think he was to name Pa a thief? He demanded Pa return the suit cleaned and mended. That man. Cobb McCanles.
She’d not forget his name.
Puppy Names (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Selling puppies became a town spectacle. Ike’s coffee buddies showed up to chaperone, making certain Ike’s pups went to good hunting homes. Danni didn’t care if they hunted. Everyone wanted the male, including this couple.
“He bites,” said Danni. On cue, Bubbie chomped the tender spot behind Greg’s knee, pinching the skin. Danni diverted Bubbie, smiling.
They bought one of the roan sisters. Trina suggested the name Maria, and Greg countered with Cooper or North. Len from the coffee klatch suggested Buckshot.
As the couple drove off, Danni turned to Len. “Seriously? You’d name one of these girls Buckshot?”
When politics feel like a poke in the eye, we know it’s a prickly season. People, situations and nature can all inspire prickliness, too.
This week writers take a jab at prickly stories. They are gathered here to remind us about life’s pokes and pricks. Yet, as typical, the stories extend beyond what you might expect.
The following are based on the September 28, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a prickly story.
Porcupine Politics by Kerry E.B. Black
Wakanda threaded the needle through the porcupine quill, capping it with amber beads. Another row completed the choker. She donned it, pushing back her black braid to view the finished product.
Her colleagues suggested she downplay her native roots, dress conservatively. Usually she did.
Porcupine kept stories for her people. They taught self-protection.
She slid a stack of carefully prepared legal papers into a satchel, feeling adrenaline, ready to fight the most important case of her career.
Porcupine taught self-defense. Wakanda channeled its lessons, raising her own quills – a law degree – to prevent the hostile takeover of ancestral land.
Roger’s A-1 Automotive by Anthony Amore
Mercifully my car was not on Roger’s lift. He swore loudly tossing an angry wrench at his pristine metal toolbox. He paused, reconsidering this action then lifted and returned the 1 1/8 to its rightful place.
“Damn it all to hell,” he raged, “Look at this!” He waved a finger covered with oily murk in my direction. I looked, nodded knowing mine was likely worse.
Roger insisted,”Forget to change the damn oil regularly then you don’t deserve the damn vehicle in the first damn place.”
Chet, beneath my car, ribbed him, “Then you’d have nothing to fix.”
Roger bristled at that.
The Thin-Skinnedness of Youth by Geoff Le Pard
‘Grandpa could be prickly.’ Mary looked at her daughter. ‘Not when you knew him, mind. As a young man.’
‘He wanted to fit in. Your grandma said he hated the fact he missed the war.’
Penny frowned. ‘Why? He might have died.’
‘Yes, but others his age fought. He felt he’d not done his bit.’
‘No more than you wanting to be friends with Jane even though she’s mean to you.’
‘I don’t. And don’t say it.’
Mary smiled. ‘Say what?’
‘That I’ll understand when I grow up.’
‘Yes, about the time you have a daughter.’
Secret Birthday Wishes by Ruchira Khanna
“Cheater!” she accused him.
“Prove it!” he demanded.
“You peeped into my paper,” she said with confidence.
“I did not,” he expressed in an agitated voice, “I just eyed your partner.”
“Over what?” she questioned.
“Why do you care?” he said with authority.
“Well, your eyes went past me. So, I am now entitled to all the conversation” she claimed.
“Gosh! You are such a sensitive lassie.” he shrugged his shoulders and irked as he opened a birthday card that had wishes all over, and it was addressed to her.
She had glee and guilt all over her face.
Rebel Rebels by Jules Paige
Nora wasn’t feeling any enlightenment from politics. It took
too much of her parents time. Truth? Was there any to be
believed? Each side spouting more negativity than anything
that could be considered valuable or helpful? So when her
Mother asked her if she could please drive someone to vote.
Nora just said; “No”.
Mother thought it wouldn’t be right to confront Nora’s senior year
English Teacher why he gave Nora an A for four semesters,
but a B for the final year grade. Mother explained the two adults
were in opposite political parties. So much for family first.
The Scrape of a Beard by Paula MoyerPrickly at first, then smooth. That’s how Charlie’s new stubble felt to Jean as it turned to beard.
Just like Charlie himself. When they first started dating, his control felt prickly.
“What were you doing? Were you really?” Ouch. Like his hard, too-big class ring on her finger.
Then the demands. Don’t major in English, major in theatre. Don’t go to that college, go to mine. By the time she had picked his major and his college, the stubs didn’t prickle anymore.
But they scraped. Her face and neck were raw from the scratch marks. So was her heart.
Sensitive Skin by Anne Goodwin
Someone touched her once. The heat of it convulsed her and scorched her skin. For weeks it festered and, when even the lightest garment proved an irritant, she stayed indoors. When she healed, she threaded her favourite jacket with thorns and never left her room without it.
Snug in her prickly jacket, she grew in confidence, forgetting what had seared her skin. She met a man, and dreamt each night of his caress. She let him court her but, when the moment came for her to shed her jacket, she couldn’t. It had melded with her skin.
A Thorny Dilemma (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Nancy Jane muttered while she tended her unconscious father.“He’s gonna get his. He’s gonna pay.”
Sarah handed her friend a fresh basin for dabbing the wounds. The prickly thorns of a locust tree welted the man’s entire body. She turned at the sound of boots on the plank floor of the cabin.
“May I enter?” asked a male voice from behind the calico curtain that hung for privacy of the bedchamber. It was Hickok.
Nancy Jane’s eyes glittered. Sarah knew what she was thinking. If anyone could confront Cobb, it was the young man who wore his pistols backwards.
Flash Fiction by Lisa Ciarfella
Lurking in the dark, dusty 7th-floor corridor, the grad student stared down rows of empty, after hours office doors. Sensing the incoming bomb drop, he’d tried to prepare, but couldn’t.
Nearly 10 pm and he knew his pompous thesis advisor, over an hour late, wasn’t coming. Shuffling his final thesis signature pages, he sighed; no signature, no candidacy! No candidacy, no diploma!
Fingering the bottom of his backpack, he found the scissors, sharp and slick, nearly nicking off his pinky. His advisor liked the campus bar, frequented after classes.
10:45; just enough time, before they called last call…
Prickly Situation (Jane Doe Flash Fiction) by Deborah Lee
Ah, yes, the problem of an address.
She does have a physical address, albeit without the legal right to live there. What would happen if she used that on her resume, her official identification, her registration to vote? It should be verifiable as deliverable by the post office.
The problem is, will anyone actually check? What if someone actually mails something to her there? All she needs is a busybody mail carrier to get her ousted and living truly on the streets.
Gotta take a chance.
She hesitates, then types in 3233 Somerset Avenue. Let them call her bluff.
Out-of-My-League by Roger Shipp
Out-of-my-league? So was every other girl here.
No way could I afford Befonte’s Ball, our last senior extravaganza. No surprise. Hadn’t gone to any of them.
But if I didn’t do something to take a chance now, in fifteen days… our paths might never cross again.
Thank God for work-study … the landscape maintenance crew.
After trimming the roses, a little shorter than necessary… a dozen white long-stemmed.
Now to find some tissue paper and a ribbon.
Pop made me take a chance… enroll here. He’s gone now. But I think he would approve … taking one more chance.
The Interloper by Ellen Best
Sissy knew there’d been an interloper, things moved, food consumed under cover of darkness; she’d have them tonight, catch them red handed. Settling down in her chair among the shadow’s she was twitchy jumping at every creak.
Three thirty she heard it, a patter of feet, as they came close she leapt! Knocking a glass to the floor ‘CRASH’ Incensed she scratched and fought. Just then Mark switched on a light. “Sissy, did you bring in a hedgehog”? He promptly chased them out into the cold night, scratched his head picked up the broken glass and returned to bed.
Prickly Beauty by Ann Edall-Robson
“There’s something yellow up there?”
“Pay attention to the trail and quit being a looky-loo.”
“What would grow on that rocky bank, and in this heat?”
“Maybe it’s a yellow snake!”
“You’re weird. Let’s go up there. We can do it.”
“Oh, for heaven sakes! We’re here to hike the trails not create new ones.”
“Be a sport. Come with me. It’s not far.”
“Come back! There could be rattlers! Damn. She never listens.”
“ Wow! Look at all the buds and flowers.”
“You had me climb all the way up here for a cactus? Oh my! They’re gorgeous!”
Desert Treat (Jane Doe Flash Fiction) by Deborah Lee
Jane tucks her unsold papers away and skinnies through the tourists along Pike Place. The library awaits, and the research paper that will lead to a diploma that will, hopefully, lead to her own home again.
Something flashes in her vision, apart from the noise and smells and colors of the shops and vendor stalls. She slows, eyes moving more deliberately. There, nestled in a display of jams and honeys: Prickly pear jelly.
Taste of home.
She gladly forks over a hard-earned seven dollars. How often does she get a treat? Spread thinly enough, she can make this last.
Waiting by Bil Engelson
Morning drifted by. Shadows chased the shade; skin prickled in the heat.
“Gettin’ hotter,” Aggie said, wiping her brow.
“Drink deep.” Dobbs passed her the ceramic jug.
As noon arrived, Dobbs declared, “Time to take up positions.”
Hank and Aggie skedaddled to opposite rooftops.
Dobbs intended to tackle the outriders head-on in the street.
As he settled in, The Banker slithered up. “I’m not backing you, Dobbs. You fool’s will be outgunned.”
“You got more mouths than a church choir, Banker. None of them are worth listening to.
“I own this town, Dobbs.”
“Then go count your money, Banker.”
Liars in Court (From Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“I can’t believe it. She lied,” said Danni.
“Children are capable.” Michael reached for the door.
“Liar!” a woman shouted from behind.
Danni and Michael turned around.
“You’re not a real cop. Go back to the reservation where you belong.” Kyndra Hinkley looked ready to batter them both with her oversized leather purse.
“Where I serve is incidental. Save your words for court,” Michael said.
Kyndra turned on Danni. “Oh, we are through in court. The judge believes my daughter. He’s going to order you to pay full damages and I hope his verdict kills your big ugly dog.”
Stronger Together by Norah Colvin
She bristled, warning platypus to stop. He didn’t.
“Feeling a little prickly, are we?”
Kookaburra, oblivious, laughed at the “joke”.
She smarted. Couldn’t he see the hurt in his words? Like a spur in her side, that last barb, really stung. Mocking difference pushed them apart.
The bush quietened. Not a breath of wind. Not a leaf’s rustle. Not a bird’s chirrup. Were all waiting for the victor to be decided?
Suddenly, out of the undergrowth, rushed a devil, hungry for blood.
Platypus turned to echidna. She contemplated leaving him. But stayed. Spur and spines together: a powerful defence.
Over yonder, where the cliffs diminish and pale in the slanting sun, is where we landed. How we left earth is a mystery. Perhaps it was a moonbeam we followed, thinking it to be a paved road or a path away from political pirates. Maybe some freak fission took place and our souls split to occupy multiple places at once. Like the passengers of Lost, I walk beyond the sand and enter a hatch to another place. I’m convinced I drove from Montana and ended up on Mars.
Montana I can explain clearly now.
Clarity crystallized upon saying goodbye. We said goodbye to new friends in Moses Lake and exchanged phone numbers with promises to meet up in other RV parks. We said goodbye to stuff in storage and I felt completely detached, wondering if this is how the pioneer women who crossed the desert felt upon dumping the hutch and china from the buckboard so the oxen might live another day of trudging sage and sand. We waved goodbye at Laughing Dog closed for remodeling and to Sandpoint friends who were not home. I stopped one last time along the Pack River Delta and whispered goodbye to Lake Pend Oreille and the pyramidal Monarch Mountains. I said goodbye to osprey though I think they left before me.
We parked our trailer on a street in Missoula, Montana and enjoyed porch-side hospitality with our daughter and her housemates. As an introvert, I said goodbye to Missoula Binders via email. Sadness began to flourish like a creeping vine in my heart. Then we traveled to Helena where I once graduated from College and bonded with my best friend. I did not want to say goodbye to her daughters, and I choked on tears as we neared. I had wanted to go to Kate’s grave, but wasn’t ready. M and I clung to one another in her doorway and we cried. Her children made us laugh. We went out to dinner and prolonged the parting. Then I drove to E’s house, hugged her son, hugged her and we left to stay one last night in Missoula with Rock Climber.
Driving along the Clark Fork River the next day to Butte where we turned south and would drive down and away for another 800 miles in tandem, hub with the trailer and me with the dogs, I listened to the epic theme from Man From Snowy River over and over until I purged all tears. I snapped photos of passing mountain ranges, broad valleys and big sky. I could not say goodbye to Montana. And that’s when it hit me — my heart is, always has been, here. I was born in a place, raised in another and have lived in 8 states, most in the western US. What defines the west, and western literature, is place. And my place, my center, my heart, is Montana.
It doesn’t matter where I reside or where I write, I’m from Montana and always will be. The clarity of that realization, the absorption of what is is to be a woman who writes the west, emptied my chest as if my heart fell out along side the road and waved me goodbye until I returned. I stopped crying, breathed deeply and felt…good. I felt settled. Now I was ready for adventure! To all who’ve spoke adventure over my reluctant transience and homelessness, now I welcome it! I’m from Montana damn it all and I can adventure where I please.
Mars? I didn’t expect that, but hey, my chest feels empty now, and I’m ready to fill up on what life brings next.
We followed the western edge of the Rocky Mountains south. By mid-afternoon we crossed over into Idaho again. The Hub called me on his cell phone. “Do you see those pale mountains to the left? Those aren’t clouds; those are the Tetons.” Those craggy peaks rise to an elevation of 13,000 feet and we could see Wyoming from Idaho. We stopped in the dark for the night just over the Idaho border and into Utah. We splurged on a motel room, and I actually missed my trailer. So did the Hub and the dogs. Who would have thought that square leaking beast on mismatched wheels would become home? With my heart beating in Montana, I was okay with living on wheels.
The next morning we headed south again, following the western edge of mountains like a guide. We stopped in Ogden, Utah to see Hub’s second cousin The Historian. He’s my idol, the family Black Sheep of his generation, a Vietnam Vet, and a former history professor. We’ve worked together on Mills genealogy in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and I owe most of my research skills to him. Seeing him always shocks me — he looks more like the Hub than any other family member, just 30 years older. And they are two peas in a pod, two black sheep, two fellow veterans. I love watching them interact. The Historian takes us out for pie and coffee, then we follow him up a steep incline to his home and orchard where we piddle and water the dogs. He tells me to find a drinking friend in Utah and to return with her to visit him. Hub smiles.
South we go again. We pass Salt Lake City, Provo and Spanish Springs. That mountain range never leaves our left side. Valleys rise and dip, thriving cities give way to ranches and towns, and the sky remains similar to my beloved Big Sky. We continue and I’m surprised to find the terrain looks similar to southern Idaho, eastern Montana or northern Nevada. Maybe Utah won’t be so different after all. I simply don’t know what to expect, except I fear it will be hot and barren like Las Vegas, Nevada, which is only 120 miles away from St. George. At Cedar City, I can see red stain in the soil among the vast range of cedar trees. They are short and scrubby in comparison to the tall pines of northern Idaho.
Here we break down. The truck pulling our trailer dies, the engine won’t restart. At this point, I should mention the car has no air conditioning. Somehow, the compressor fell off, who knows where. The Hub suspects it was removed during repairs last fall after we hit a deer. Anyhow, it’s hot and I feel a tad frightened. We are at the mercy of heat and unknowns. The Hub thinks the truck overheated on the last mountain pass so we sit a while, listening to the panting of our dogs. It starts and we head to a shop in town. Turns out our gas filter was dirty and the heat exacerbated the problem. For forty bucks we get a new one installed and head out as the sun is setting. Relieved.
My phone is set to lead us to the only RV park with an opening for four nights. When the Hub got the Great News of his new job in St. George, Utah, I called every RV and camping park within an hour’s drive to find a place to park our trailer. They were all full, even the ones fellow RVers said not to go to. A possible ranch connection was all we had. The new Company was going to set us up in a hotel in St, George but not until Sunday night. The Hub, not wanting to be late for his first day of work, had us showing up four days early. While broke down, I called the best RV park in the region on a fluke of what if (after all, I write fiction and can imagine possibilities). Turns out they had a spot available for four nights due to the small stature of our trailer.
Before we get to St. George it is pitch black. We turn off the road to head to Zion River Resort and I ask Google for a dinner stop. Google directs us to the Stagecoach Grill. To a western writer, that’s a promising name. Inside, the decor emphasizes horses mixed with bold colors. The menu offers fresh food and ice water. Afterwards, I take the lead because I have the phone with our north star installed. Here’s where I think we detoured on a moonbeam, split or fell down a hatch. I do recall feeling woozy, but the road had more curves than Sophia Loren. It felt as sultry, too. Night, yet still blanketed in warmth as if the sun had managed to stay the night. After winding up and down, left and right, my phone died. In a panic, I slowed down and at that moment the Zion River Resort — and no vacancy sign — appeared to the right.
The office was closed but a man with a gray mullet and bright pink shirt greeted us in a golf cart. He pulled up our reservation and we followed him to site #82. “Check in come morning,” he said, waving as he drove off in his cart without a sound. We plugged in the electricity, turned on the AC, watered the dogs and fell fast asleep. The next morning we woke up on Mars. I was not prepared for this red and white, of cliff faces, pinnacles and sandstone taller and larger than the mountain I left. The land is baked and a muddy red river runs through it, bordered with cottonwoods.
My first morning, I stood, staring at a 6,000 foot butte and cliff-face beyond my trailer door. The sun blazed hot, yet felt comforting. Lizards skittered away as I walked past a pool and court yard. Song birds flitted in green trees. Mars is pleasant, I thought. The first thing I saw walking into the office to check in was a large painted sign on faded barn wood that read, Buffalo Bill Cody and the Congress of Rough Riders. I smiled and knew I landed right where I was supposed to be. Let the amazing feats begin.
The hallmark of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show was the “amazing feats” of his Congress of Rough Riders. Here at Carrot Ranch, we play with flash fiction the way musicians jam. There’s no right or wrong to the prompt, but a constraint of 99 words. Here, writers can practice, show off, experiment with new tricks, explore story ideas, develop characters or plot, and have fun writing. If you are pressed for time, add a further constraint of time. You might be amazed at what you accomplish in 99 words. Just as I am amazed by my new home-scape.
September 14, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about an amazing feat. What is the accomplishment and why is it amazing? Think small or go over-the-top large. Is it realistic or fantastically exaggerated? Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by September 20, 2016 to be included in the compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
The First Trick (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Bubbie sat, quivering. His brown eyes crossed to gaze at the biscuit perched on his snout. Nostrils flared, and thin drool hung from his lips. Danni backed away and the children in the clearing held still. No one spoke. Then Danni gave a command and Bubbie snatched the biscuit with his darting tongue. The children erupted into cheers.
Mrs. Gunnerson held up her hand for silence and order returned to the fourth-grade field trip. “Listen up, children. Dr. Gordon and her archaeology dog will lead you to the park petroglyphs.”
Danni exhaled, grateful for the dog that was her ice-breaker.
When He Was Young and Innocent (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Hickok crossed his arms and drew his pistols, shooting the tossed sardine can. Nancy Jane howled with laughter, but Sarah frowned.
“Don’t you like my neat trick,” he asked, feigning hurt.
“I’m studying your grip,” said Sarah.
“Grip? What are y’all serious about now,” asked Nancy Jane.
“Why do you wear your guns backwards?”
Hickok returned each pistol to his red hip scarf, butts facing out. “It’s how I learned to cross draw. Fastest way to sling guns.”
Sarah nodded. “Ever shoot anyone?”
Hickok drew again, twirling the pistols. “Nah,” he said with a smile that reached his eyes.
Smile. It’s the message of the lady bug and I almost missed it for not reading the book. The Book, not just any book, is thick with cardboard pages, each one beautifully illustrated to capture the imagination of a child, ages 0 to 100. It’s by Nancy Tilllman, and called, “On the Night You Were Born.” It was a gift from Kate before she died.
While visiting Kate in the hospital last May, she wanted me to fetch several important items from her desk at home. She trusted the task to me, even promising me snacks she’d hid in the left-hand drawers. We both laughed when I reported back to her that the Grandchildren had already ransacked the snacks. Judging by the wrappers, I missed out on some good ones.
One item I returned to her is what I’d call a baby-book. It’s a toddler’s first reader, the kind they can teethe on and not shred pages (easily). She told me to make sure her three-year old Granddaughter didn’t see it or she might think it hers. She had one and now, I did, too. I was a bit puzzled at first until Kate read me the book. It begins:
On the night you were born,
the moon smiled with such wonder,
that the stars peeked in to see you
and the night wind whispered,
“Life will never be the same.”
I’m at one of those moments where I know life will never be the same. I’m packing, dealing with panic attacks and wavering between hope and hopelessness. Many possibilities are in the air like floating dandelion seeds and instead of my usual excitement for all that is possible, I feel like my compass point is spinning when I need a clear path. I want a single possibility to resolve it all.
Kate gave me this book because she understood that our friendship was one of sharing the bad times as well as the good. And she knew that when I faced a rough spot without her, I’d need the reminder that:
…whenever you doubt how special you are
and you wonder who loves you, how much and how far,
listen for geese honking high in the sky.
(They’re singing a song to remember you by.)
I almost didn’t read the book, and was about to pack it away. There’s a dark reality that anything I pack in storage I might lose. What if we can’t find a home? What if my client contract doesn’t come through? What if I fail to publish? What if the money owed to me by Go Idaho is truly unrecoverable? What if my check from Sandpoint Magazine doesn’t arrive in time to rent a temporary place on short notice? What if I succumb to my own dark thoughts?
Smile. Really? Smile at time like this! As I pull the book off my desk shelf, its clunky pages it opens naturally to a page with a single line: “And none of the ladybugs flew away.”
It might not read as profound to you as it does to me. You see, the day Kate died, I sat on a patio with her youngest daughter, M, and her best friend. When I formally met the best friend was when I returned to be at Kate’s side. I walked into the hospital room and a young woman grabbed M in a protective hug and boldly said, “This is my best friend!” I nodded, walked over to Kate’s side, put my hand on her shoulder and said, “This is mine.” That day, we best friends shared a bond of being-there-no-matter-what. And the worst that could happen, did. Thus the three of us sat numb in the sunshine of a patio the day Kate died.
That’s when a lady bug began to harass me. No matter how many times, I placed it on a plant or blew at it, that lady bug would not fly away. With tears in her eyes, M said, “It’s Mom.” I’m not an insect kind of buckaroo and Kate knew this about me. So of course, if she came back to visit me she’d find it funny to do so as a bug. I accepted the lady bug and it stayed on me the entire time we sat outside.
Now, nearly a year later as I pack with a sore heart and mind full of doubt as to my worth, I sit on the floor among half-filled boxes and read, On the Night You Were Born. And I find the message of the lady bug, the message Kate wanted me to remember:
If the moon stays up until morning one day,
or a lady bug lands and decides to stay,
or a little bird sits at your window awhile,
it’s because they’re all hoping to see you smile…
Last night I drove to town without a smile. I thought about canceling Wrangling Words at the library. What good am I to other writers? Oh, yes, lead the writing life just like me, go places, don’t get paid and get evicted for no solid reason other than you are the one renting because you don’t have the means to buy. Yes, I was in a full-blown pity-party, the kind to crush all smiles. While packing, I had come across my college work from the 1990s. I found my outlines and character development for two novels that withered and died in those boxes. I was considered adept enough to do two independent studies on those novels. My professors once called me Super Woman. Well, didn’t I go out in the world and crash my invisible plane.
While the education coordinator finished setting up refreshments for Wrangling Words, I sat in silence. I hoped no one would show. I sat for 20 minutes and realized I could leave in three when a man walked through the door. Maybe he had the wrong room. “Is this where the writers meet,” he asked. I confirmed it and asked him what he wrote. Ah, I recognized that pure enthusiasm for one’s work as he explained his novel in progress. Despite my gloom, I began to smile. Then a woman walked in and I resigned myself to a the truth of that moment — I need to feel needed.
It’s not my ability to write that I doubt. It’s that I know how hard this journey is and sometimes I doubt I can take another step. It keeps me going when I can help someone else along the path. In a way, I feel like a trail guide. Sooner or later, every serious writer (and even the light-hearted ones) discover how rocky the writing path can be. At times like this, I pull out of my own funk, shaking off the dust of the trail, to talk two other writers through the dust. Giving someone else clarity, re-orientates my own compass. And I remember to smile.
I also remember to plant columbines for strangers, leave dandelions for the bees and invest in my writing that risks no payback.
Wendell Barry once wrote a poem about doing things that are contrary to circumstances, defy politics and profit, and call us to do things we will never see come to fruition. Mad Farmer Liberation. Part of his manifesto from 1974 reads:
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
Laughter can’t tumble from a clenched frown. To be joyful requires a smile. I look for these messages in baby-books and poems. Call me crazy. Call me a writer.
So damn all you property managers to the place Trump will end up one day (may you rot in in the waste heaps of Washington DC for all I care). I cry out the psalms of disorientation, the ones where David asks God to bash in the teeth of his enemies. I shout this to the wind, I show the lavender-gray clouds of dusk my fists. I kick at the pavement of the driveway for no matter how angry I am at common injustice I can’t kick the land.
No, I revere the peat, honor the budding sweetness of clover and I gift my columbine to the next landowner on Elmira Pond. I never planted bee-bombs last summer, thinking they were for me to see. I planted bee-bombs as an investment in the future of pollinators. I planted columbine in the belief that beauty is perennial not annual; it’s for all of us or else we become Trump, blinded by a bad comb-over and lack of human dignity.
I write. For I am human despite my housing failings. I write. For I am always a student and no novel is ever truly finished even when published. I write. For I have so many stories in my imagination that if you were to peer through the window you’d think it was infinity. I write. For I feel deeply beyond the pit of my despair and I dig into pit-roots and use what I find like Indian Jones barely surviving another adventure. I write. For I fear not the darkness and dare to illuminate with words. I write. For sometimes I am scared but it’s my prerogative to contradict myself, to re-invent myself, to tell you who I am and not the other way around.
Sarah Shull rode horses the way I write. She had no where to go, but she went. No one would hire a female accountant except for her one-time lover who jilted her to return to his wife. She didn’t own her own place and was at the mercy of many before she succumbed to cold alone in a desolate cabin among the stumps of trees she once knew as a forest. She rode because she kept a secret. She rode because others judged her without knowing her. When arthritis and age crippled her frail body, damn them all, she rode in her dreams until the day she died.
To you Sarah Shull, I recite these words from my baby-book:
For never before in story or rhyme
(not even once upon a time)
has the world ever known a you, my friend,
and it never will, not ever again…
The world will not know the likes of her, and I write because I have seen her in my storehouse of an imagination. I write because I want to see Sarah Shull smile despite 98 years of hardship and holding a secret to protect her friend who…well, I know her secret and I write so one day you might realize it, too.
May 24, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that changes with a smile. It can be a character, tone, setting or any creative use of smile. You can go deep and consider motive and influence, or you can light up the world with a brilliant flash (of teeth as well as fiction). And smile, because your writing matters and is not hostage to your level, experience or circumstances.
Respond by May 31, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Heaven Smells Like Nebraska Territory by Charli Mills
The girls clung to each other and crept to Sarah’s bed. The one-room cabin was dim and drafty. Sarah’s form was still as death in the sag of a discarded mattress.
Even Sarah thought she was finally, blissfully, dead; drifting away from the squalor of stumps, escaping the putrid pollution of wood mills, leaving behind decades of condemnation as a fallen woman. Shulls Mill receded and Sarah could feel the tug of a galloping steed. She smelled morning dew on prairie grass. Was heaven carpeted like Nebraska Territory?
She smiled. The girls squealed and Sarah woke up, yet alive.