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We crowd into the lobby, snow nipping at our backs each time a new couple or family enters the oak doors. I wiggle my fingers to diminish the giddiness of a night out to the Calumet Theater. I listen to chatter as people explain who they know in the upcoming performance of Alice in Winterland. One mother laughs when she explains how much green paint her daughter wears as the Grinch. Another confesses how nervous her son is the play Charlie Brown.
It’s a winterland mash-up of familiar American Christmas stories all set to the music and narrative arc of Taichoski’s Nutcracker Ballet. It’s a bit like this take on multiple Christmas songs in one minute:
And all of this creativity in bites to produce one performance also reminds me of the weekly compilation of responses to our flash fiction challenges. It struck me, as I took my seat in the historic gilded and velveted Calumet Theater how much of a ballet mom still resides in my heart, rounding up the stories backstage each week. I want to bring roses to all the writers after a performance.
It’s been too long since I connected with my inner stage-mom. For 15 years I lived in awe of The Nutcracker. Five of those years I eagerly watched from backstage as my eldest daughter and youngest son both performed in a professional ballet troupe from Minneapolis.
Every child in dance dreams of shoes and sugar plum ferries. In ballet, it’s point shoes. After spending $100 on a pair of pink satin slippers with ribbons so fair, my darling daughter would pound the toe-boxes, burn the satin off the point and whip-stitch the ribbons. If it sounds horrific, consider what we writers do to a flash fiction.
We pound stories into sentences, slice words to a perfect 99, and strangle characters with twists so fine.
Between the audience seats and the dancers behind the curtain exists a stage upon which we both suspend belief and let art convey the story. I love dance as much as literary art, but I have no skill for it. I can take classes, just as I learned the craft. But writing is the performance I prefer. I’m content to sit in the audience and watch the dancers.
For years, I helped backstage, learning how to double-pin strands of wayward hair and zip sparking costumes during quick changes. A quick change occurs when a dancer must change costumes for back-to-back dance numbers. My son, one of few boys who even studied classical ballet, was guaranteed to be cast as one of Clara’s brothers and rarely had quick changes in the first half. My daughter danced in the corp, meaning she had numerous changes.
And lucky me, one year I was responsible for the Prince.
The Calumet Theater with its opulence and history reminds me of the Red Wing Theater where The Nutcracker performed on tour. I went with the troupe and taxied my kids to classes, performances, and costume fittings. Each December dreams of sugar plums danced on stage. And then the lights went out.
Children grow up, move on and stage-moms are left with no one to buy roses for or help whip-stitch new ribbons. What a comfort it is to be in a theater again, listening to family chatter, watching former students return for the holidays and sneak backstage to say hello. I sink into my seat, wait for the house lights to dim, knowing that these children performing on stage have received classical ballet instruction from my daughter.
A literary community knows such connectedness, too. I’m stage-mom in the back-wings, watching each of you work at your craft, find joy in the steps and brave the spotlight when it’s your turn to perform. And yet we are a whole, each voice lending to a more powerful dynamic than one alone.
Hold on to that feeling a moment. Two points I want you to own: no matter your solo, no matter your dream and your pain to accomplish it, no matter how many hours you write alone — you are not alone here. Second, we are a part of something bigger, something we call art. And we are champions for literary art, giving voice to unheard stories, even giving voice to the invisible.
If you know some of my journey, you are aware of how I feel about the homeless experience and veteran struggles being invisible among society. They are the unsung songs, the canceled performances, the flash fiction in a journal no one reads. Recently I learned of an organization using another art form to give voice to veterans and their families:
Songwriting With Soldiers operates from a simple principle — pair veterans and active-duty service members with professional songwriters to craft songs about their military experiences.
To me, this is a powerful way to use art to heal, to create empathy for another’s experience, to give voice to those who struggle to articulate that experience. Songwriter, Mary Gauthier, wrote The War After the War (below) with the input from six combat veteran spouses, which is the number of women I share my own experiences with each week. It’s empowering when the invisible are seen and heard.
While I don’t have roses to share with all you who perform on the writing stage at Carrot Ranch, I have a digital gift for the holiday season. If you’ll go to my Canva profile, you can pin or download the Carrot Ranch Seasonal Desktop Wallpaper to add a touch of holiday cheer to your computer. I tried to think of different manifestations like the diversity we have here at the ranch (the squirrels are for the nuts among us who don’t like holiday cheer).
Surrounded by velvet the lights finally go low at the theater. The performance has begun. And I’ll let you get to your own.
December 7, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write that features a performance. You can interpret what is a performance any way the prompt leads you.
Respond by December 12, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published December 13). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Performance Anxiety (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Standing in the darkened wings, Danni stretched her hips. She arched her back, clasping her hands overhead. On the stage, Evelyn prepped the audience.
This was her moment. She couldn’t see faces, just the heavy beam of overhead stage lights. Her professor taught her tricks to overcome performance anxiety when she realized that as an archeologist she’d occasionally have to give public presentations.
The Sandpoint Theater was packed, and Evelyn was already giving introductions. “Without further ado, Dr. Danni Gordon…”
Walking out into the lights, Danni conjured the friendliest face, as if she were performing just for him – Ike.
Essay and flash fiction by Sharon R. Hill, guest writer to Carrot Ranch.
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Death Calls Dr. Whitaker was inspired by the title of a nineteenth-century death notice about an ancestor of mine. The title struck me as unique and I knew that it would make a great title for a short story. I initially did nothing with my idea nor did I know where to begin in framing the story.
History is important to me and is a dominant theme in my literary short fiction. It is a blessing to have such a rich variety of characters in family lore to draw from. For instance, my grandfather, a man I never knew, was a con-artist whose actions were countered by my salt-of-the-earth grandmother who kept the family out of poverty and made certain her children received an outstanding education. This backdrop was the basis for my story Life in Silhouette which was a difficult story to write but also cathartic. I found a means to understand and forgive by writing fiction-based-on-fact about emotional pain and physical hardship.
I have recognized that I am great at historical research but poor with organization. In recognizing this, I am transitioning to an informal outline and character sketches because I desire to become a better and more productive writer. My bellwether moment about changing my writing process came when I was trying fix a short story that I’d been working on for some time. My writing mentor explained to me that I hadn’t connected with my protagonist nor revealed his motivation. My third draft of the story also had the same foundational problem so I decided to move on and circle back to it later. Death Calls Dr. Whitaker came to mind and I decided that I would create my first flash fiction. As I began to write, the story evolved as a first-person narrative with the deathbed scene as the catalyst for the experience. Also in the back of my mind was a desire to channel Virginia Woolf because I had recently read her essay The Death of the Moth and I wondered whether I could replicate the essence of this work.
Death Calls Doctor Whitaker
Death lingers in the bedroom where old Doctor Whitaker sleeps. It infuses the air with dread in a way that only the presence of death can. I think about opening the only window in the room that faces west with a view of the sunset. Like a child, I imagine that this will expel the threat.
Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock sounds the generations-old grandfather clock, the metered sound is reminiscent of tiny heartbeats. The chimes repeat six times to announce the hour, reminding the living of a bygone day.
Doctor Whitaker is held hostage in a difficult slumber and his eyelids quiver in some erratic timpani, yet they remain shut. I sit by his bed in a stubby, wing-back chair of pale-blue velvet fabric with faded wood armrests. The stiffness of the chair aids me in my duty to stay alert, as I watch for the moment that will complete the outline of a life.
With his wife long dead and the marriage childless, the responsibility of this days’ vigil has fallen to me though I barely know Dr. Whitaker. I accepted this burden because of my fondness for his housekeeper Sally who is expected at her family home today for her parent’s anniversary celebration.
In the silence of all but the ticking clock, verses from a poem lift in my memory to my consciousness “Can you say tonight in parting with the day that’s slipping fast, that you helped a single person of the many that you passed?”
I notice a worn-out leather medical bag tucked in the open square of a simple, dark-oak nightstand. A wall calendar from a Memphis mercantile with a worldwide timetable hangs above to announce the month of May in 1935. In a daydream, I envision Dr. Whitaker as a younger man jogging along an old roadway of dust in his shay offering comfort to the sick. Yet he spends what may be his final hours with a mere acquaintance, even a stranger. I wonder at the absence of visitors, including the children he helped birth and who will now be middle-aged with their own families.
I feel anxious when a pair of whippoorwills’ land on the garden fence as instinct compels their predictive chant.
A trembling left-hand begins an echo in each limb and Dr. Whitaker’s mouth begins to twitch. The thin blanket that covers him from below his neck and is tucked over his feet has shaken loose.
Dr. Whitaker’s face has an anguished expression as though he is in the throes of a struggle with an unseen foe. I understand that the foe he struggles with is time, as his strength of spirit continues the fight for life.
Sharon R. Hill moved from Tampa, Florida to Nashville, Tennessee ten years ago. She is a writer of literary fiction and has been published in The Wilderness House Literary Review, Indiana Voice Journal, TWJ Magazine, and The Bangalore Review. Her story Brown Tobe won TWJ Magazine Best of 2016 for fiction. Sharon enjoys using an historical backdrop to explore moral themes and the complexities of the family dynamic.
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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at email@example.com.
Pipers are calling to blueberries plumping on the bush. Anytime Superior fog rolls in and the air turns cool and smells like rain on bedrock, locals nod and say, “Berry growing weather.” At times the gray coolness confounds my sense of season, and I scoff that berries are growing on the Keweenaw when elsewhere I know temperatures are blasting heat across most of North America, and in Kansas the tomatoes grow visibly in the time it takes to drink a cold bottle of hard cider.
Evidently blueberries grow in the coolness of Copper Country. Maybe the plants root over lost veins of native copper and beef up on mineral supplements organically occurring in the skim of dirt abandoned by miners. Pans of blueberries cover the kitchen counters, tempting me to pluck “just a few” and go back to writing at my improvised dining room office. They are as real as the tomatoes down south I imagine sliced and sprinkled with lemon pepper. It must be summer nonetheless in the western hemisphere.
My plaid shirt is appropriate — it hides any blueberry stains upon its dark blue and gray weave and makes the piping feel like the song of my soul. I’m not imagining that one — the pipers are truly calling. Every Thursday they practice bagpipes at the fire station a few blocks down the hill. On a rainy day full of the dreary work of a writer — line editing, communicating with designers and setting up phone interviews for client work — I’m whisked away to the magical realm within by the sharp simplicity of berries and music.
There’s a key scene in Rock Creek: Nancy Jane is burying her baby, digging the prairie dirt alone. Her Pa has gone off to borrow a suit. Never mind the suit’s owner wasn’t around; Joseph Holmes is not one to feel obliged to have permission. Whiskey is often the only lens he has on navigating life. Unfortunately he crosses paths with a small group of men on horseback headed to a road station. One is a fiddler from Appalachia, a descendant of ousted Scots-highlanders and a former sheriff. The other is his cousin and the third man is the owner of the suit. Thus Nancy Jane meets Cobb McCanles the day he drags her father across the prairie sod to test the man’s questionable story that he borrowed the suit for his grandson’s funeral.
In the hero’s journey, the structure I use to frame novels, or even in the three-act classic structure, certain scenes act as keystones to the story’s architecture. Some of you might recognize this scene because I’ve played with it in flash fiction previously. As the story takes shape, I revisit this scene and dig deeper. It has an emotion so buried, I must go beneath the prairie roots to untangle it, and bring it to the surface. Why do the women of Rock Creek matter? Because, for so long, their buried (and burying) stories have gone unheard.
Why do we hear pipers calling in our hearts and minds as much as in our ears? It penetrates us deeply; an emotion difficult to articulate; an experience we have and label it life. Life is a simple four-letter word. No embellishments. No tongue-twister. It’s neither harsh nor sweet to hear. It’s easy to say. Difficult to define. The pipers play life notes and berries taste like a moment suspended from life. This is the taste, the feel of the life experience I’m chasing down on the page from the women who came from Scotland in the 1700s to the lone prairie a hundred years later:
If you recognize the song, you’ll understand it is a musical score to represent on of the great American classics in literature: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. He wrote romantic (not Harlequin, classical) histories about American frontiers. I think of my path as parallel, only I’m rewriting the frontiers to include women and their myriad of motives beyond, “I’ll go do the dishes now.” Which brings me to another song that reminds me of women and the West:
I’m looking for Nancy Jane’s prairie song, for Mary’s, for Sarah’s. Where is the John Wayne for women?
Pipes and berries know no gender. Say what you want about traditions but anyone can listen to the pipes and pick berries. We’ve conditioned ourselves to receive male stories of epic adventure and diminish female stories as domestic. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a frontiers woman. Just because she wore braids didn’t mean she only did dishes and poked a needle in some fabric. Heck no, Laura was out running the banks of Plum Creek, chasing her dog Jack and riding her horse at breakneck speeds along the shores of prairie lakes. It’s not surprising that I went from her series of books to Ian Fleming’s. Laura prepared me for adventure and it never occurred to me that only men could be James Bond.
However, it crept into my early writing, focusing on male leads because I wanted to write epic westerns and exciting histories. Now I seek to polish up experiences like Laura’s and present frontier women unfiltered. To me, what remains key is finding those moments that feel like pipers calling to summer berries. Motives. Passion. Regret and revenge. Dreams. Death. Life. Passing on one’s tightly held blueberry of a moment to another. Pipes. End scene.
August 10, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) include music and berries. It can be fantastical, such as the music of berries or a story that unfolds about a concert in a berry patch. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by August 15, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published August 16). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Forbidden Fruit (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
“Save the seeds,” Nancy Jane said, berry juice running down her chin and cleavage.
“Nah. To make Otoe dice. Fun game.”
A canopy of trees dappled the sun where bluffs and a thicket of buffalo berries barricade this hidden spring. Nancy Jane bathed here. Naked. No wonder she laughed when Sarah protested hiking her skirts to ride horseback astride.
Sarah sank her teeth into the small black fruit with a golden center, wanting to laugh. If she did, Cobb might hear. Perhaps a trick of the mind, but she swore she heard strains of his fiddle nearby.
Sixty miles an hour, windows rolled down, paved highway humming to the spin of tires, and I’m daydreaming about prairie flowers.
My hand rests on the steering wheel while I follow the truck and trailer in front of me. This must have been the view of pioneer women, only the pace much slower and the landscape emptier. No road signs to follow; only wagon ruts cut through the rolling hills. No modern rest stops or gas stations with odd names like Kum & Go; only free fuel for the oxen and skirts for privy privacy. When Mary Green McCanles followed her brother-in-law’s family out to Nebraska Territory, what did she dream during the long drive?
It’s easy to lump “pioneer women” into generic categories like loaves of commercial bread — you can barely discern a difference between white or wheat. In my mind, I recite the different prairie flowers to bloom during my stay in Kansas and focus on color, height and texture. Each one has a different season, grows in different soil and might even have surprising purposes. So it was with the women. My appreciation for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books about her pioneer years renews. She took the time to cast each character in a unique role. Laura was different from her mother, sisters and peers. Each was her own prairie flower within the settler ecosystem.
When I became interested in telling the Rock Creek event between two historic men, I wondered if I’d have anything new to say about July 12, 1861. James Butler Hickok has been thoroughly investigated by British historian, Joseph Rosa. Often accused of being yet another fancier of Hickok mythology, Rosa had a sharp mind and a ready pen. Best of all, he did due diligence in his research, something his peers and predecessors did not do as thoroughly. When anyone called out Rosa for his disclosures or discoveries on Hickok, he readily responded and editorial battles ensued in western history associations and magazines for all the world to read. And Rosa supplied evidence for his claims or counter-strikes.
However, when it came to David Colbert “Cobb” McCanles, Rosa pulled from the error and gossip filled annuals he corrected for Hickok, but not for Cobb. I understand. Rosa’s lifelong focus was Hickok, and that’s why no one expects anything new to be discovered. At first I felt annoyed that McCanles didn’t receive fair scrutiny. While his grandson attempted to “set the record straight” after seeing his family name besmirched in dime store novels and Hollywood westerns, the result was an over-correction. Who was D.C. McCanles? It depends upon which faction one reads, but each side has gaping holes in documentation.
Early on, I wrote the man as a character in a white hat, then black. But it wasn’t until I picked up on how the women would have seen him that the story came to life.
Like many before me, I first saw the pioneer women of Rock Creek in general terms — the wife, the former mistress and the station manager’s common-law wife. The wife/mistress tension had been played out ad nauseam and the more I wrote into the story, the less it held up as the linchpin to the events of July 12, 1861. I couldn’t find out much about the station manager’s wife. I felt if I could peer into the lives and minds of these women like a botanist scoping prairie flowers, I could understand better what happened that fateful day. I could come up with something new like Rosa had.
Women get lost in the records, often because of name changes. Thankfully Mary (the wife) had sons, and I could track her whereabouts through their names. After all, she did remarry. Sarah Shull also remarried, and other historians discovered her married name and subsequent locations, but they fixated on an imagined love triangle between her, Hickok and Cobb. Because it annoyed me that the lover’s spat angle was cliched and yet another way to diminish the expression of women on the frontier as anything else other than wives or whores, I followed the leads that pointed to Sarah’s profession. The pioneer was an accomplished accountant and store-keep. Given Cobb’s interest to expand his business holdings, it places Sarah in another role.
Jane Holmes was the hardest to research. We know through oral accounts she was the daughter of Joseph Holmes, a frontiersman and carpenter. She is also documented as being the common-law wife of the Pony Express station manager, Horace Wellman. She might be the young unmarried woman with an infant listed in the Joseph Holmes household of the 1860 territorial census. Her name is Nancy J. Nothing can be found of her before or after Rock Creek. Nor can I find a likeness of the sort of woman she might have been among the more proper journals, diaries and scrapbooks of pioneer women. She’s my imagined free spirit.
Research, writing and daydreaming has been my Rock Creek dance. I’m not penning a biography like Rosa did, but I will take a page from his strategy book. While thumbing through the crisp, brown and musty ledgers of the Kansas State Archives, I used Hickok as an entry point once I couldn’t find anything relating to my principal women. That led me to Rosa’s research. I mean, his actual research he himself did at the Kansas State Archives for decades. For 20 years he did all his research from London, writing correspondence with the state historians. After that he traveled to the Midwest annually to research for 30 days, his holiday. Once he began to publish, he stood on solid documentation. Like Rosa, my fiction will stand upon solid research.
Unlike Rosa, I dream the gaps. I drive and daydream of prairie flowers, digesting what I discovered in Rock Creek on this trip.
Mary, deepened in character when I gave her a competitive edge over Sarah to wield like power. Cobb’s father wrote of Mary’s vivaciousness and a photo no historian has ever published in a book about Rock Creek shows her to be a gorgeous young woman at the time of the incident. But what else? Even the prairie rose has more to offer than beauty. I learned several stories, digging into old pioneer accounts about the era after the Rock Creek incident. One, told by her two children Cling and Lizza (as “old-timers”) recounts how they grew up playing with the Otoe-Missouri children near Rock Creek. Cling says his mother traded with them.
In a second account in another book, Mary features in an obscure incident involving the Otoe-Missouri tribe. They often stopped at her ranch, even wounded. Further, the author relates a simple passage: “Mary often walked the trails alone and at night to midwife and doctor folks.” Not only was she not afraid of the “redman” her neighbors often feared, she took care of them as a prairie doctor. This rose suddenly bloomed in my mind, and I daydreamed about Mary and what her life was like and how she became a lone woman on the prairie, doctoring and delivering babies no matter the origins. No wonder many lovingly called her Grandma McCanles in her old age. No wonder proper history overlooked her improper activities.
A third story related to me by a local historian was that Mary’s second husband divorced her because of infidelity. She said I could find it in the county records. Not that it pertains to the events in my book, but it certainly colors the character of Mary who has only her first name inscribed upon her gravestone above “Wife of D. C. McCanles.” I once thought perhaps she was uncertain of who she was — a Green, a McCanles or a Hughes. No, I think she knew exactly who she was and didn’t require the name of a father or spouse to legitimize her life in death.
Another conclusion I drew from experiencing Rock Creek in person was that Nancy Jane might be missing from the records, but she served an important role in life. She was friend to Sarah Shull, and able to reinvent herself. I suspect her next relationship was that of marriage. The wildest of the three might have assimilated into a proper life. But I like to imagine her racing a horse across the hard-packed earth with hair as wind-whipped as mine while journeying north. She did not fear change. She might have been a bit like Calamity Jane whom Hickok treated kindly later in life. Newspapers and records might have missed their lives, but the women of Rock Creek live on in my dreams.
This week, Rough Writer and author, Ruchira Khanna, has offered a guest prompt. I’d like to pause, near the end of a long journey (or at least a rest stop) to thank everyone at Carrot Ranch for carrying on while I traverse the trails. Especially, I’d like to thank Norah Colvin, D. Avery and Ruchira Khana for stepping up to ranch chores. I’ll catch up with you all once settled on the healing shores of Lake Superior. Keep writing, keep pushing on, and happy trails to you all.
June 22, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that involves a dream. This action could have happened while awake, such as daydreaming, or make up a dream when asleep. Go where the prompt leads as it could be a nightmare or just fond memories or ambition.
Respond by June 27, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published June 28). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Lost in a Dream (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Young Sally stirred the bean pot and twittered about lace she’d seen in Beatrice. Sarah saw herself as if in a dream, a memory vividly sketched in mind but dormant for years.
“Beans look ready Miss Sarah?”
Her hands, no longer stiff and aged, trembled at what she knew came next. She heard herself repeat words from 70 years ago. “Check one.”
Sally blew on the wooden spoon, a lone pinto perched in thin liquid. Bread cooled next to churned butter and wild plum jam.
Sarah succumbed to the memory of the day. There never was a last supper.
White clouds scud across the blue skies of Kansas. An ocean of green grass spreads out below and I can imagine how the pioneer wagons with white tarps once mirrored the procession of cumulus clouds. In a modern car the going is smooth, but in a wagon the path was not easy. Wagons wore ruts and packed the earth so hard, grass doesn’t grow in some places even today. Ravines and creeks were dangerous, and pioneers often drowned crossing rivers. My idyllic vision of Conestogas crossing the prairie is far from reality.
Yet there’s a reality often overlooked in the western expansion of the US — the perspective from women who came west. Just as I’m driving the car in our mini RV train of sorts, women often managed the reins of the wagons. At the end of the day after traveling, I can still feel the movement of the road. I’m sure the wagon drivers laid down at night feeling the sway and jostle of their conveyances, too. But what’s significant is what’s omitted from the pioneer diaries and accounts. According to one historian, as many as 90 percent of the women who came west were in one phase of pregnancy or another. There were plains so flat and wagons so many, I wonder how women found privacy for the most personal of functions?
A community of women would have been important. They could look after one another and best understand feminine needs. But what about those on the fringes? I often think of Nancy Jane Holmes as a feminine rebellious spirit. But how rebellious could her gender be? Evidence indicates she had a child out of wedlock and later lived with a man as a common-law wife. She grew up on the prairie and I imagine she learned to hunt and fix game for meals. She was more hunter than farmer. Did she ever ride with the buffalo hunters? What did she think of the groups of women who passed through in the wagon trains? What did they think of her, or say to her?
For men, the westward expansion was more adventurous. In their prime, they were not burdened by bodies meant for fertility. They didn’t experience monthly fluxes, pregnancy or nursing an infant. They were free to roam, explore and be independent even with families in tow. If men were single and in a group, often they were pushing longhorns to Kansas from Texas or serving as soldiers in the US Cavalry or frontiersmen who scouted for wagon trains and hunted buffalo.
Driving across the lone prairie, I wonder at how to breakthrough the stereotypes of these past experiences, to acknowledge what was common and likely, yet imagine the unrecorded exceptions. History has documented James Butler Hickok, Wild Bill, to the minute detail. There’s no new evidence of his experiences, yet I think there’s much left to say about them by looking at the other people he interacted with at Rock Creek. Especially the women. Historians have turned wild imaginations toward Sarah Shull, and yet have virtually ignored Nancy Jane Holmes (or Jane Wellman). She was on the fringe of what was typical of pioneer women. She was more of a frontierswoman. And that’s where the story gets interesting.
Kansas provides rich history, and tomorrow my research here begins.
For the challenge, I’m thinking about the longhorns who also once spread across the plains. The word longhorns evokes notions of cowboys and cattle, which featured later in Wild Bill Hickok’s life. It’s also the name of western steakhouses, bars, football teams and a type of cheddar cheese. Dig deep enough and you’ll find some obscure term for computer technology. It’s the same idea with history, and I look forward to digging.
May 25, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a that includes the word longhorn. You can go with any of its meanings or make it a name of a person or organization. Cheese or cattle, technology or place, what can you create from the western icon? Go traditional or new; go where the prompt leads.
Respond by May 30, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published May 31). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Myths of Longhorns (from Rock Creek) by Charli MIlls
“Ever see cowboys riding the trail with their longhorns?” Jesse asked.
Sarah was tucked in a blanket, sitting on Jesse’s porch. Shulls Mill squatted dingy with lumbering dust and brick buildings. Not the crisp colors of the prairie. “No,” she replied.
“But I thought Hickok was Marshall of the biggest cowtown.”
“That was later. I saw plenty of oxen and some had long horns.”
“I pictured longhorns on the prairies.”
“Buffaloes. I once saw a herd so large the ground shook.”
“Weren’t you afraid of Indians?”
“Jesse, there’s much about the west not in those dime novels you read.”
“Well, I’m standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona and such a fine sight to see. It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me…” wrote musicians Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey. The song went on to be a classic for the Eagles: “Take it Easy.” That iconic opening was one Jackson Browne struggled with and Glenn Frey assisted by adding the second line as a joke, as a first response. But you know what? Sometimes it’s those unconstrained ideas that jump from our brains to pen that surprise even the writer, yet becomes the right idea.
I’m not standing in Winslow, Arizona, but my feet are planted on the historic Honeymoon Trail that begins there. And it includes a girl, my Lord, and an eventual hoard slow trekking to get married. Between here and there, and beyond me into St. George, Utah expands a vast arid land settled by the Latter Day Saints, the Mormon Pioneers. The Honeymoon Trail led from outlying settlements of the Little Colorado River to the only Temple in town. You see, to obtain an eternal marriage, Mormons must be sealed in the Temple.
Just as I’m not sure what the Hub’s Puritan ancestors would make of the LDS Church posthumously baptizing them all for a greater heaven than they sought in the Colonies, I’m also not sure about sealing. Something mysterious occurs within the grand white Temple that gleams like a lost tooth in a stark red landscape of carved sandstone. I’m not keen on the polygamy, which still exists within the modern FLDS (Fundamental Latter Day Saints) where girls are married to old men and boys are considered competition, thus once of age they are escorted with only a home-school education to St. George and dumped at the Catholic Church social services like a litter of unwanted puppies.
But show me a religion unflawed. We can’t single out one without noting them all.
Belief is powerful. Belief in God is undeniable in those willing to settle the desert and practice the freedom of expression they were denied elsewhere. And how can anyone stand on the Honeymoon Trail as it drifts off into swells and washes beneath a sunset of carnival glass without pondering one’s existence and that of a creator God? When we step off that corner in Winslow, Arizona and try to meet the girl we realize that first-love is no easier to grasp than colors in the sky. Yet, like addicts, once smitten we try to recapture the moment.
My drug of choice is the land. Slowly I inhale dust and sage and sunset. I absorb the wash of magenta-lavender-gold light. The nothingness I hear plays like an orchestra as vast as the horizon, my heart thrumming like water that flows underground in hidden hollows. My eyes blur and ghosts come out to dance lightly among sagebrush and cactus with spines so fresh the plants look fuzzy. The sun dips and my hit subsides but the good vibe lingers. I could stand here on the Honeymoon Trail until coyotes yip and stars out-twinkle a Swarovski tiara.
Alas, my honeymoon is over.
The Hub is agitated and impatient to drive out of this land. If I said nothing, he’d drive and drive and drive. But he married an outspoken woman and unlike those who followed men to the Temple, I protest. Perhaps other women on this trail protested, too. Many believed the promises of Brigham Young, others believed in a better life. Nonetheless they all believed a Temple marriage was worth the hundreds of miles of this trail past poison water, the mouth of the Grand Canyon itself and dangers of the desert. I can’t imagine the Hub persisting across this expanse with a wagon and mule. He’s too impatient, but he’s my impatient partner and he tolerates my quirks and annoyances.
The day he came home and told me his therapist said I was outspoken I snorted and said, “Better than silent.” I don’t believe it was an insult. It was said in context of encouraging the Hub to express his own views separate from mine. Which I see he has no problem expressing. He’s outspoken, too. I’m sure, had we made the Honeymoon Trail trek 150 years ago, the silence of the desert would have echoed our voices from camp to camp. He’s a warrior; I’m a fighter. And we both survive. We do more than that. We laugh raucously and share a love of land, each other and our children.
When do you know the honeymoon is over?
I think of Mary Greene wooing Cobb McCanles in North Carolina where fresh water tumbled coolly over granitic rocks and steep mountains hid beneath a deciduous forest. A fun game it must have been, the excitement of the chase, the power, feeling alive to pursue a man who left the other girls tongue-tied. And they were girls. Mary was 14 when she first saw Cobb shirtless in the glen, riding his steed. Sarah was 13. By the following February, after the harvest dances, Christmas and in time for the early mapling, Mary was 15 and married. At 16, she gave birth to their first son. At 17, her mother died. At 18, she bore a second son, at 19 a third.
The honeymoon was definitely over by the time she was 22, Cobb was elected Sheriff his second term and their fourth son was born. Imagine being 22 years old with no mother, a husband on duty out of the house and often on the trail, and four children under the age of five. And then you hear another is pregnant by your own spouse. Such was Mary’s life in 1856. Counting back the months, Mary forgave Cobb by Christmas. Nine months later she bore a daughter, a difficult birth that nearly killed them both. What might have torn apart other couples, Mary and Cobb seemed agreed on giving their “blue baby” a chance at life. In an age where no one would have questioned the baby dying from a failure to thrive, Mary and Cobb nurtured their daughter who would retain developmental issues and blindness her whole life.
We never achieve the honeymoon again perhaps because it’s a mythical period of expectation exaggerated by a chemical rush of hormones. Maybe the Mormon coupes seeking their eternal marriage forged a stronger foundation for partnership, sharing the arduous journey of the Honeymoon Trail. Maybe they shrugged off the exhaustion of the trail as sunsets offered promise evening after evening until the white Temple rose into view. Maybe they spoke of hopes and dreams. Maybe they held hands and shared each others’ fears. Maybe a few were outspoken. Maybe a few men welcomed a spirited woman, recognizing marraige in such a place would be a daily battle.
March 9, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a honeymoon story. It can be between a couple before, during or after the honeymoon. Or it can refer to a honeymoon period. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by March 14, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published March 15). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Under a Honey Moon (from Rock Creek) by Charli MIlls
Cobb fiddled for the Christmas festivities, his gaze lingering always on Mary. How long had it been since her husband looked at her like under a couple’s honey moon?
After the final reel, Cobb spoke to his father before joining Mary. James returned with a rocking chair and set it in front of her. Its hickory gleamed dark and gold. James was renowned for his craftsmanship.
“It’s yours,” he said.
“Oh!” Mary sunk into the smooth seat, rocking silently. She smiled up at father and son.
James clapped Cobb’s shoulder. “My son made that for you.”
“Forgive me, Mary?”
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.”